Can FIDO bring biometrics to consumers?

Information and system security is a complicated business that comes down to a few very basic concepts. Issues of trust and identity are central to effective information and system security. The trouble is, we often struggle to understand what these two things mean and have an even harder time trying to prove them.

Proving someone is who they say they are, or identity, is reasonably easy in the physical world. When a friend or family member is in your presence you can identify them by any number of attributes like appearance, voice or smell. But when we’re trying to establish identity for access to systems it gets a little harder.

The generally accepted maxims of two-factor authentication are that you need users to provide something they know and something they have. For example, they know their password and they have a token that gives them a one-time access code.

Nick Savvides, senior principal systems engineer at Symantec, spoke at AusCERT 2014 about what biometrics can bring to the table in resolving these issues, particularly at the consumer level. Although, there are some obvious lessons for enterprises.

There is, in Savvides’ words, an "identity land grab” in progress. Every time you see someone trying to convince you to use one of your social network identities to sign-in, leave a blog comment or use a new service, they are really trying to “own” a piece of your identity. Those 'sign on with Facebook, Google and Twitter' buttons might be convenient but they are part of an agenda to collect more data about you for commercial purposes.

The FIDO (Fast Identity Online) Alliance seeks to develop technical specifications that define an open, scalable, interoperable set of mechanisms that reduce the reliance on passwords to authenticate users. It does this by operating industry programs to help ensure successful worldwide adoption of the specifications it develops and submits to recognised standards development organisations for formal standardisation.

One of the most important tools they use are biometrics. However, it’s fair to say biometrics haven’t enjoyed a great reputation. Consumer biometric devices have historically delivered poorly on their promise. They’ve been considered to have high error rates, there’s been user resistance because of privacy concerns, and there have been lack of devices with incentive. For example, many laptops ship with a scanner but it can take several finger swipes to work and all you get for your trouble is a log-in to your computer.

But Savvides questioned if these are still significant issues. Today we have better sensors and the iPhone in-built scanner, which have greatly increased user acceptance to the point where the feature is now widely available. The barriers are falling away.

One of the problems, Savvides said, was that the system model for biometric systems has been wrong. Until now, much of the development has been around using server side bio-templates, identity proofing and there was a focus on federation. These issues were exacerbated by a lack of interoperability and complex deployments.

FIDO’s approach is different does not focus on federated identification or identity management. FIDO’s approach is focussed purely on authentication. Interestingly, it also bans the use of server side biometric databases. This is an interesting contrast to the largest biometric identification project in the world – India’s AADHAAR project.

While biometrics get a lot of attention, they are not a requirement as it can work with any form of authentication such as PINs. This gives freedom to developers and integrators to integrate biometrics as required. With FIDO, all biometric data reside on mobile devices that have a FIDO compliant sensor.

According to Savvides, this focus means the standards FIDO defines can avoid complexity and, consequently, forking as developers either interpret or modify elements to suit their specific needs.

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