German hackers crack Apple fingerprint technology

It didn't take long for the hacking community to crack Apple's fingerprint recognition system, Touch ID.

A German hacking group, Chaos Community Club, announced that they'd managed to fool the fingerprint scanner in the iPhone 5S with techniques generally used to defeat similar technologies in the market.

To crack Touch ID, CCC first photographed a fingerprint of a phone's owner using a resolution of 2400 dots per inch. The image was then inverted and laser printed on a transparent sheet with the toner setting set to thick.

Next, pink latex milk or white wood glue was smeared into the print of the fingerprint. After the latex or glue dries, it's lifted from the laser print, breathed on to moisten it slightly and placed on the iPhone's fingerprint sensor to unlock the phone.

"In reality, Apple's sensor has just a higher resolution compared to the sensors so far," a CCC member, Starbug, explained in a statement. "So we only needed to ramp up the resolution of our fake."

"As we have said now for more than years, fingerprints should not be used to secure anything," added the hacker who performed the critical experiments that led to the successful circumvention of the fingerprint locking. "You leave them everywhere, and it is far too easy to make fake fingers out of lifted prints."

Apple did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

While most security experts acknowledge that fingerprint scanners, in general, are n o silver bullet for authentication, that doesn't totally negate the value of using a fingerprint to secure a smartphone.

What the CCC did was more a proof of concept than a hack, contends Grayson Milbourne, security intelligence director at Webroot.

"They've proved that it's possible to scan a fingerprint and use that to access the phone," Grayson said in an email. "However, this is not a remote hack. They still need access to the user's fingerprint and the phone itself."

"It's also worth noting that if Touch ID fails five times, it takes the user to a passcode option instead, bypassing the fingerprint scan entirely," he continued.

"For consumers, Touch ID is still a great way to quickly access their phone," he added.

[Also see: Apple's iPhone 5S reopens debate on sensor data collection]

And that's what Apple's apparent intentions were when introducing Touch ID. "This is a consumer product," Paul Henry, a security and forensic analyst with Lumension, said in an interview. "I don't believe it was the intent of Apple to create a fingerprint reader that is so secure it's going to stop a determined hacker."

No one with critical business information on their phone should be depending solely on Touch ID to protect their phone, said Richard Henderson, a researcher with Fortiguard Labs.Ã'Â "As a target, it's incredibly simple for someone to follow you around and wait for you to touch something," he said.

"If you're Tim Cook, and you're walking around with an iPhone 5S right now with just Touch ID enabled, then you have an issue," Henderson said. "I can guarantee you that I can pay a busboy at one of his favorite restaurants $100 and walk out of there with a glass he drank from."

While cracking Touch ID may have been good research project, it may not be a cause of concern for many iPhone 5S owners because the amount of effort needed to mount the attack would be impractical for many hackers.

"It would be much easier to wait for the person to unlock their phone and then steal the phone or to attack their phone on a network through an OS vulnerability," said Adam Ely, co-founder of Bluebox.

Even before Touch ID was cracked, byte tinkerers had discovered a way to skirt the lockscreen on Apple devices running the new version of its iOS mobile operating system. That vulnerability could be far worse for iPhone users.

"That's because with those things anyone can pick up any random phone and get into it," Michael Pearce, a security consultant with Neohapsis, said in an interview. "They don't have to get a user's fingerprint."

"What's interesting, though," Pierce said, "is that Apple can put out a software patch that fixes the lockscreen. It can't put out a patch to make fingerprints secure."

BlueBox's Ely discounts the security merits of Touch ID. "The fingerprint reader on the iPhone 5S is more of a convenience feature than a security feature, though it does provide additional security by preventing someone from watching you type in your pin code and replaying it," he said.Ã'Â

Read more about wireless/mobile security in CSOonline's Wireless/Mobile Security section.

Join the CSO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags applicationssecuritymobile securitysoftwareData Protection | Wirelessdata protectionTouch IDChaos Computer ClubApplefingerprint readeriphone 5s

More about AppleLumensionNeohapsisWebroot

Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

Editor's Recommendations

Solution Centres

Stories by John P. Mello

Latest Videos

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: The Human Factor - Your people are your biggest security weakness

    ​Speakers: David Lacey, Researcher and former CISO Royal Mail David Turner - Global Risk Management Expert Mark Guntrip - Group Manager, Email Protection, Proofpoint

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Current ransomware defences are failing – but machine learning can drive a more proactive solution

    Speakers • Ty Miller, Director, Threat Intelligence • Mark Gregory, Leader, Network Engineering Research Group, RMIT • Jeff Lanza, Retired FBI Agent (USA) • Andy Solterbeck, VP Asia Pacific, Cylance • David Braue, CSO MC/Moderator What to expect: ​Hear from industry experts on the local and global ransomware threat landscape. Explore a new approach to dealing with ransomware using machine-learning techniques and by thinking about the problem in a fundamentally different way. Apply techniques for gathering insight into ransomware behaviour and find out what elements must go into a truly effective ransomware defence. Get a first-hand look at how ransomware actually works in practice, and how machine-learning techniques can pick up on its activities long before your employees do.

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Get real about metadata to avoid a false sense of security

    Speakers: • Anthony Caruana – CSO MC and moderator • Ian Farquhar, Worldwide Virtual Security Team Lead, Gigamon • John Lindsay, Former CTO, iiNet • Skeeve Stevens, Futurist, Future Sumo • David Vaile - Vice chair of APF, Co-Convenor of the Cyberspace Law And Policy Community, UNSW Law Faculty This webinar covers: - A 101 on metadata - what it is and how to use it - Insight into a typical attack, what happens and what we would find when looking into the metadata - How to collect metadata, use this to detect attacks and get greater insight into how you can use this to protect your organisation - Learn how much raw data and metadata to retain and how long for - Get a reality check on how you're using your metadata and if this is enough to secure your organisation

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them Featuring: • John Baird, Director of Global Technology Production, Deutsche Bank • Samantha Macleod, GM Cyber Security, ME Bank • Sherrod DeGrippo, Director of Emerging Threats, Proofpoint (USA)

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    IDG Live Webinar:The right collaboration strategy will help your business take flight

    Speakers - Mike Harris, Engineering Services Manager, Jetstar - Christopher Johnson, IT Director APAC, 20th Century Fox - Brent Maxwell, Director of Information Systems, THE ICONIC - IDG MC/Moderator Anthony Caruana

    Play Video

More videos

Blog Posts