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iPhone 5S's fingerprint authentication hacked

Well, that was quick

The iPhone 5S was just released, and already its highly-touted fingerprint authentication scheme has been hacked. The Chaos Computer Club, a European confederacy of hackers, has managed to hack an iPhone 5S's fingerprint authentication, and to do it without breaking a sweat.

Chaos Computer Club breaks Apple TouchID

Links from that article will show you how it's done. How easy is it? It's not a cakewalk, but I'm pretty sure I could do it.

I'm not too surprised by this. The security experts I've read generally don't regard fingerprint authentication as a very good way to secure anything very valuable. You can't change your fingerprints and you leave them all over the place. And it appears to be far easier to fake the tip of your finger than I would have thought.

It's complicated

Should you worry about this? I would, at least a little. [See addendum below.] Don't have a 5S here and I'm actually not quite sure what other options it might give users for security. For example, combining fingerprint authentication and a passcode challenge would probably be pretty secure — certainly much more secure than either one alone. If I did get an iPhone 5S, there's a good chance I'd stick with the four-digit code, or even better, use a longer alphanumeric passcode.

Of course, the strength of any security scheme has to be assessed in relation to the threat against which you are trying to protect yourself. In my neighborhood, I'm not worried — well, not very worried — about random gunshots or home invasion (thank God). The security system we have installed is better than we think we need, but the security at the White House is presumably much better. If you're just trying to keep your children or coworkers out of your iPhone, then fingerprint ID might be great. It might even be okay if you don't expect your phone ever to fall into the hands of intelligent thieves.

Cost or inconvenience are also important. Fingerprint authentication or touch ID is certainly easy and quick, much quicker and easier than typing a four-digit number. That's the big plus for touch ID.

And the four-digit number scheme isn't all that secure, either. For starters, there's a reasonably high chance that somebody could get lucky and guess your four-digits before the phone locks up. It's not a simple math calculation: We know for example that "1234" is an extremely common passcode. So if I were a thief, I'd try "1234" for starters. There's a pretty good chance that will get me in. And even if you manage to pick one of the least common pass codes, a thief can still get lucky. There's just no way that a four-digit passcode can protect my phone the way much, much longer and more complicated passwords protect my bank and email accounts.

Bottom line

Security is a very difficult problem — not difficult to understand, but difficult to solve. Best advice: Worry less about your iPhone and more about the accounts that are accessible inside your iPhone. If somebody steals your iPhone and manages to get into it, you want them to be unable to do much more than look at your pictures of your cat. So, make sure that the passwords you have on all of your important accounts are

  • long
  • hard to guess
  • unique to each account
  • not stored in the open anywhere
And to make this work use a password management tool like 1Password (what I use), LastPass. Do not store passwords in your browser! If you want more info, get Joe Kissell's excellent book Take Control of Your Passwords, or contact me directly.

ADDENDUM. I didn't come across Ed Bott's article on this subject over at ZDNet, but he says many of the same things I've said here. But, while I'm a little bit nervous about fingerprint authentication, Bott is reasonably positive. One point: "The real lesson in all of this isn’t that fingerprints are untrustworthy. In fact, the opposite is true. For everyday use, a fingerprint is far more secure than a four-digit passcode." Read his entire piece; it's good.


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