Researcher hacks Microsoft Fingerprint Reader

A security researcher has shown how hackers could steal fingerprint information using Microsoft's Fingerprint Reader.

Never mind worrying about hackers stealing your password. A security researcher with the Finnish military has shown how they could steal your fingerprint, by taking advantage of an omission in Microsoft's Fingerprint Reader, a PC authentication device that Microsoft has been shipping since September 2004.

Although the Fingerprint Reader can prevent unauthorized people from logging on to your PC, Microsoft has not promoted it as a security device, but rather as convenient tool for home users who want a fast way to log on to Web sites without having to remember user names and passwords. In fact, the Web site warns that the Fingerprint Reader should not be used to protect sensitive data.

Hoping to understand why Microsoft had included the caveat about sensitive data, a researcher with the Finnish military, Mikko Kiviharju, took a close look at the product. In a paper presented at the Black Hat Europe conference last week, he reported that because the fingerprint image taken by the scanner is not encrypted, it could be stolen by hackers and used to inappropriately log in to a computer. Kiviharju's report can be found here:

Because the fingerprint image is transferred unencrypted from the Fingerprint Reader to the PC, it could be stolen using a variety of hardware and software technologies, called "sniffers," that monitor such traffic, said Kiviharju, a researcher with the Finnish Defense Forces. "The fingerprint that can be sniffed is pretty good quality," he said.

The fingerprint image could either be used to break into a PC or simply be stolen by attackers, a violation of the user's privacy.

Once the fingerprint image had been sniffed, it could be used by attackers to make it appear as if the victim were authenticating onto a PC or a Web site using the Fingerprint Reader, Kiviharju said. But this type of attack, which is called a "replay attack" because the fingerprint scan is simply replayed back to the computer, is complex. It also requires that the attacker physically connect a second PC to the computer that is being attacked.

Although neither of these attacks is easy to pull off, they are both greatly simplified by the fact that Microsoft has chosen not to encrypt the fingerprint image, Kiviharju said.

In fact, this is probably the most interesting question raised by the research, because it appears that Microsoft could enable encryption by making some minor changes to the product's firmware, Kiviharju said. "That has baffled some of the experts that have contacted me as well, " he said "It's quite a decent product, but somehow Microsoft has managed to botch it."

Microsoft licenses the technology behind its Fingerprint Reader from a California based company called Digital Persona which manufactures a similar device, called the U.are.U 4000, which does encrypt the fingerprint images.

Microsoft executives were not available for comment on this story, and a spokeswoman for the company's public relations agency could not say why encryption was not enabled on the Fingerprint Reader.

Although Digital Persona would not comment on why Microsoft may have turned off the product's encryption capabilities, one company official said that this decision is not likely to affect the security of its users.

"The fact that they turned the encryption off, I would argue, does not in a practical sense open up any security holes," said Chief Technology Officer Vance Bjorn. "Even with the encryption off, you're going to have to basically have physical access to the person's machine to crack into it."

One security analyst speculated that the encryption settings may have simply been part of Microsoft's licensing agreement with Digital Persona.

By creating a version of the product that is not focused on security, Microsoft and Digital Persona may be ensuring that the two companies' products don't compete with each other, said Russ Cooper, senior information security analyst at Cybertrust.

No matter what Microsoft's reasoning may be, fingerprint theft is not a major privacy concern, Cooper said. "I'm more concerned with cameras in change rooms than I am with losing my fingerprint," he said. "People have already given up tons and tons of privacy... read your credit card agreement. Look what you agreed to."

Join the newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.
Rocket to Success - Your 10 Tips for Smarter ERP System Selection
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Robert McMillan

IDG News Service
Show Comments



Sansai 6-Outlet Power Board + 4-Port USB Charging Station

Learn more >



Back To Business Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles


PCW Evaluation Team

Louise Coady

Brother MFC-L9570CDW Multifunction Printer

The printer was convenient, produced clear and vibrant images and was very easy to use

Edwina Hargreaves

WD My Cloud Home

I would recommend this device for families and small businesses who want one safe place to store all their important digital content and a way to easily share it with friends, family, business partners, or customers.

Walid Mikhael

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

It’s easy to set up, it’s compact and quiet when printing and to top if off, the print quality is excellent. This is hands down the best printer I’ve used for printing labels.

Ben Ramsden

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

Brainstorming, innovation, problem solving, and negotiation have all become much more productive and valuable if people can easily collaborate in real time with minimal friction.

Sarah Ieroianni

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

The print quality also does not disappoint, it’s clear, bold, doesn’t smudge and the text is perfectly sized.

Ratchada Dunn

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

The Huddle Board’s built in program; Sharp Touch Viewing software allows us to easily manipulate and edit our documents (jpegs and PDFs) all at the same time on the dashboard.

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?