The news from the Office of Personnel Management hack keeps getting worse. In addition to the personal records of over 20 million US government employees, we’ve now learned that the hackers stole fingerprint files for 5.6 million of them.
This is fundamentally different from the data thefts we regularly read about in the news, and should give us pause before we entrust our biometric data to large networked databases.
There are three basic kinds of data that can be stolen. The first, and most common, is authentication credentials. These are passwords and other information that allows someone else access into our accounts and — usually — our money. An example would be the 56 million credit card numbers hackers stole from Home Depot in 2014, or the 21.5 million Social Security numbers hackers stole in the OPM breach. The motivation is typically financial. The hackers want to steal money from our bank accounts, process fraudulent credit card charges in our name, or open new lines of credit or apply for tax refunds.
It’s a huge illegal business, but we know how to deal with it when it happens. We detect these hacks as quickly as possible, and update our account credentials as soon as we detect an attack. (We also need to stop treating Social Security numbers as if they were secret.)
The second kind of data stolen is personal information. Examples would be the medical data stolen and exposed when Sony was hacked in 2014, or the very personal data from the infidelity website Ashley Madison stolen and published this year. In these instances, there is no real way to recover after a breach. Once the data is public, or in the hands of an adversary, it’s impossible to make it private again.
This is the main consequence of the OPM data breach. Whoever stole the data — we suspect it was the Chinese — got copies the security-clearance paperwork of all those government employees. This documentation includes the answers to some very personal and embarrassing questions, and now opens these employees up to blackmail and other types of coercion.
Fingerprints are another type of data entirely. They’re used to identify people at crime scenes, but increasingly they’re used as an authentication credential. If you have an iPhone, for example, you probably use your fingerprint to unlock your phone. This type of authentication is increasingly common, replacing a password — something you know — with a biometric: something you are. The problem with biometrics is that they can’t be replaced. So while it’s easy to update your password or get a new credit card number, you can’t get a new finger.
And now, for the rest of their lives, 5.6 million US government employees need to remember that someone, somewhere, has their fingerprints. And we really don’t know the future value of this data. If, in twenty years, we routinely use our fingerprints at ATM machines, that fingerprint database will become very profitable to criminals. If fingerprints start being used on our computers to authorize our access to files and data, that database will become very profitable to spies.
Of course, it’s not that simple. Fingerprint readers employ various technologies to prevent being fooled by fake fingers: detecting temperature, pores, a heartbeat, and so on. But this is an arms race between attackers and defenders, and there are many ways to fool fingerprint readers. When Apple introduced its iPhone fingerprint reader, hackers figured out how to fool it within days, and have continued to fool each new generation of phone readers equally quickly.
Not every use of biometrics requires the biometric data to be stored in a central server somewhere. Apple’s system, for example, only stores the data locally: on your phone. That way there’s no central repository to be hacked. And many systems don’t store the biometric data at all, only a mathematical function of the data that can be used for authentication but can’t be used to reconstruct the actual biometric. Unfortunately, OPM stored copies of actual fingerprints.
Ashley Madison has taught us all the dangers of entrusting our intimate secrets to a company’s computers and networks, because once that data is out there’s no getting it back. All biometric data, whether it be fingerprints, retinal scans, voiceprints, or something else, has that same property. We should be skeptical of any attempts to store this data en masse, whether by governments or by corporations. We need our biometrics for authentication, and we can’t afford to lose them to hackers.
This essay previously appeared on Motherboard.