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Fingerprint payments taking off despite security concerns

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For most consumers, the firm's security pledges are either enough or take a back seat to the convenience of paying by fingerprint. A survey commissioned by BioPay found that half of those polled believed fingerprints to be more secure than other forms of payment and, more importantly, more convenient.

"Convenience almost always wins out, even over security," BioPay's Prakash said.

However, at least one of BioPay's practices has raised eyebrows among security and privacy experts. While Pay By Touch executives say the company does not keep the original image of the fingerprints used by the customer to enroll, BioPay does, storing two fingerprints images from each of its two million customers encrypted in an offline database.

Such a database would quickly become the target of identity fraudsters, said Bruce Schneier, chief technology officer for Counterpane Internet Security and author of several books on security and encryption. While there is no obvious use for a database of fingerprints today, that does not mean there will not be uses in the future, he said.

"A decade ago, no one really knew what use a database of a million credit card numbers would be - turns out you can do a lot of things with it," Schneier said. "Right now, we are not at the point that there are obvious uses of fingerprint, but 'I don't know' is not a good response when discussing security threats."

Such a database will be valuable in the future, and criminals will find a way to get access to the data, he said.

"Keeping the system offline is not a solution, because you have to worry about insiders as well as outsiders," Schneier said.

Recent events have shown that compromising computers by attacking their network connection is only one way to get access to sensitive financial data. Bank of America lost 1.2 million records of financial accounts not through a system compromise, but when sensitive, and unencrypted, backup tapes went missing. And, Choicepoint's had more than 145,000 consumer records stolen when fraudsters gained access to the data broker's records by posing as legitimate firms.

Privacy experts worry that the existence of a database of fingerprints would also be a lure to law enforcement. If an unknown fingerprint is found at a crime scene, checking it against a database such as the one BioPay keeps would likely become standard procedure, said the World Privacy Forum's Dixon.

"If I was a law enforcement agency and there was a wide deployment of BioPay, they would be my best friend," Dixon said. "When you are thinking of really bad scenarios (from a civil rights point of view), that is it. It's a security violation waiting to happen."

Moreover, a database of fingerprint templates may be just as useful to criminal investigators as a database of images. If a template could be generated from a latent fingerprint left at a crime scene, then any database of fingerprint templates could be used to match a print to a person.

BioPay's Prakash stressed that the company would control access to the database to the extent allowed by law.

"We make a pretty big point that we do not share with the government," she said.

Yet, the marketing executive for BioPay is less certain on what the company's reaction would be to a subpoena from law enforcement to check its database for a certain fingerprint.

"It hasn't happened yet, and I don't want to speculate," Prakash said.

Copyright © 2005, SecurityFocus

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