Carjackers Take Man’s Fingertip

Biometric identification offers a powerful way to recognize you as being you. Just present your finger, face, or other recognizable feature to enter a building, get money from an ATM, or sign for a credit card purchase. But could someone cut off your finger to steal this identity? That is just what happened to K Kumaran of Subang Jaya in Malaysia

A March 31, 2005 report in Malaysia’s New Straits Times describes how a luxury car owner, Mr. Kumaran, was attacked by a gang of car thieves. His ordeal was apparently made worse because his S-Class Mercedes Benz was equipped with a biometric lock that prevented the car from being started without authentication by his finger or thumb print.

At first the thieves had Mr. Kumaran start the car using his fingerprint. Then they took him, along with the car, to a chop-shop where they had hoped that the security system could be bypassed. When they decided that they couldn’t override the security and that the fingerprint was required, they took Mr. Kumaran’s left fingertip and dropped him off along the roadside where he was eventually able to find medical help.

Around the world a pattern of escalation in security and violence has been seen where increased car theft leads to better security systems. More secure cars are harder to break into so car thieves resort to carjacking. More secure cars are harder to break into so car thieves resort to carjacking. If we extrapolate the cycle, will the addition of fingerprint readers lead to carjacking plus severed fingers?

Stealing body parts to use as biometric keys has been a theme in movies and urban legends, but does the case of Mr. Kumaran mean that it will be a reality for us in the future? That depends on a number of factors including biometric technology, how that technology is implemented, and how we deal with the social and legal aspects of a new violent crime.

Biometric Car Locks
Over the past five years, fingerprint readers in luxury cars have been gaining in popularity. Because the technology is new and unproven, most systems are designed to provide convenience in the form of an optional keyless start, automatically adjusting personal settings such as  the seat, steering wheel, and mirror positions and program the user’s radio presets.

Siemens, for example, has developed a fingerprint reader for the Keyless-Go system. Keyless-Go uses an active RFID card in the car owner’s pockets to unlock the doors when the driver is near. With a fingerprint reader installed, the car can also be started without the need for keys making the entire driving experience keyless.

There are third party add-on biometric ignition systems that can be added to cars for under $1,000. These systems are more likely to be installed to require a fingerprint to start the car rather than having the fingerprint as an optional convenience.

Even systems with fingerprint immobilization need to have some sort of override such as a car key or a long PIN code to start the car in the event that a valid driver’s fingerprint is unrecognizable for any reason, ranging from a broken detector to more mundane interference such as a nasty paper cut or peanut butter spilled on the sensor.

Fingerprint list
Most fingerprint ignition systems advertised online have a way to enroll and manage as many as 100 additional fingerprints by giving one primary user to enroll others. This way, friends and family can be added to the list of valid drivers. The system also needs to have a method for enrolling a new primary user’s fingerprint so that the car could be sold and transferred to a new owner.

Another possible feature for a car security system is a duress indicator to alert authorities if the car has been started unwillingly by the owner. Home security systems use a variation of the deactivation PIN code to set off a silent alarm. With a fingerprint system a given finger can be enrolled as a duress indicator. 

The New Straits Times article didn’t mention if Mr. Kumaran’s fingerprint reader was for convenience or security. Either way, there was likely a way for the car to be transferred to the thieves without requiring Mr. Kumaran’s fingertip. If the fingerprint is required to start the car, it is to the driver’s advantage that the finger has to be attached and living!

Aliveness Detection
Aliveness detection can be added to fingerprint readers to discourage the use of fake fingers or, as in this case, carjacking and dismemberment. The idea is to detect whether or not the fingerprint is being presented by a living finger.

Fingertips have a layered structure. The epidermis is the outermost layer and is not living tissue.  Beneath the epidermis is the dermis. These two layers have different physical characteristics. For example the epidermis is harder, dryer, and has less electrical conductivity. The dermis has the same fingerprint as the epidermis and some sensors actually detect the print from this layer rather than the surface. Aliveness detection can be done at both levels but generally the deeper the sensor looks into the finger, the more reliable the aliveness measure can be.

There are many techniques for detecting aliveness:

– Temperature
– Conductivity
– Pulse
– Challenge-Response
– Pulse Oximetry
– Ultrasonic
– Multispectral

You can find more details about these techniques in the newly published ITG report about Fingerprint Matching Technologies that is available for registered ASSA ABLOY Future Lab members only – click here to log in and read this report.

The more sophisticated methods would not be fooled by a dead finger and it would be very difficult, even impossible, to create a fake finger capable of passing. But, adding aliveness detection to a fingerprint reader adds to the cost and can make the reader less convenient to use. Because the necessity of aliveness detection has not been a driving factor for most systems, many fingerprint readers use inexpensive aliveness detection if they use any at all.

Safe & Secure
Fingerprint identification has long been used in security documents and it is being used more and more for access control, buying groceries, getting money from an ATM, and starting cars. With reliable fingerprint readers and liveness detection, biometric systems can be used in combination with security badges or PIN numbers to provide reliable identification. Spoofing attacks with fake or dead fingers can be foiled with good liveness detection so that using fingerprints can be both safe and secure.

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