Fingerprint Identity Theft: How to Keep Your Devices Secure

Last Updated on April 30, 2024

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We’ve been told for decades that fingerprints are the most secure way to identify someone. This makes sense, as each person has a unique set of fingerprints.

Even identical twins do not have the same fingerprints, according to Live Science. The odds of two people having the same fingerprint are 1 in 64 billion.

Understanding, techies, and security companies have found ways to rely on fingerprinting to provide digital security. You might unlock your smartphone with your fingerprint, for example, or you may gain access to a secure room at your business this way. You may believe that your device is perfectly safe with fingerprint identification enabled.

Because the use of fingerprints for secure identification is becoming more popular biometrics hacking is a growing technique criminals use to try to steal your identity.

Although it may seem almost impossible, hackers have found ways to defeat security based on biometrics, like fingerprints. It’s an extremely challenging hack to pull off, but the rewards are big. After all, people trust biometrics security to store some of their most sensitive information.

We’ll explain what biometrics hacking, or fingerprint identity theft, is. We’ll give you some techniques to try to avoid becoming a victim, as well as help with spotting potential hacks involving biometrics.

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How Does Fingerprint Hacking Work?

Perhaps you’ve seen any of the numerous movies or TV shows where criminals steal a body part from a victim. They then use the detached body part to gain access to a location protected with biometrics scanning.

Not only is that hacking technique gross, but it’s extremely unrealistic. There are far easier ways to try to get around a biometrics scanner than using a detached body part that likely won’t work anyway. A hacker may:

  • Create a fake fingerprint that matches yours based on a photo or scan of your fingerprint.
  • Use artificial intelligence to create videos or images that can fool certain biometrics scanners, such as facial recognition scanners.
  • Steal a stored digital representation of your biometrics and fingerprint information – the 0s and 1s – and use it to fool the security measures.
  • Steal the actual scan of your fingerprint by hacking the device where it’s stored or by convincing you to send a scan by pretending to be someone else.
  • Work around the fingerprint security system through a flaw in the software or hardware.

Biometrics hacking has already happened

Although no biometrics or fingerprint hacking schemes rank as any of the 10 largest data breaches – yet – this type of data breach first occurred several years ago … well before most people were even using this type of security protection method.

In 2015, hackers stole biometric identifiers stored at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. This hack involved data for as many as 5.6 million people, according to Wired. At the time of the hack, officials claimed the hackers probably couldn’t do much with the fingerprint ID data. 

Several years later, though? Technological improvements may give hackers new options for using this type of sensitive data.

Even though you may take every possible precaution with your personal data, including using ID theft protection services, you need blind faith when trusting third parties to use and protect your data. 

Consequently, it’s important to protect yourself and to never just trust one means of securing your personal information.

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Why Fingerprint Identity Theft and Biometric Hacking Is So Dangerous

Once a hacker has your biometric data, whether it’s a fingerprint, facial recognition, or similar data, it becomes a significant problem for you.

After all, you can’t suddenly change your fingerprints or facial shape to try to combat someone having access to your data. Once criminals have this information, they can potentially use it for the remainder of their life.

For comparison, if a hacker steals your password for an account, it’s also dangerous. However, you may have the opportunity to change the password before a hacker can take advantage of it. An old password is likely no longer useful to the hacker, while your fingerprint will always be useful.

Once you lose control of your fingerprint to a hacker, you can no longer safely use that means of identification. You would have to switch to a different biometric identifier.

Close-up of Fingerprints on White Background

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Common Types of Fingerprint ID Theft Scams

Although defeating biometrics and fingerprint security measures is a challenge for hackers, they can do it. To protect yourself, it’s helpful to understand some of the ways that hackers defeat these biometric scans.

Hacking your actual fingerprint scan

What is it? Your device or a third party may store a copy of the image of your fingerprint scan that it uses to determine a match. If this image is not securely stored, someone might be able to steal the image during a hack.

Does it actually work? If the hacker manages to grab your fingerprint image directly from your device, it’s certainly possible to break into your account or device. However, if the hacker steals your image from a database with hundreds of thousands of images of fingerprints, it may be difficult to match the image to your specific devices or accounts. If the hacker can identify your fingerprint image, though, your data could be in danger.

How to avoid it: Make sure any image file that includes your fingerprint or other biometric data has encryption on it. With encryption, the hacker won’t be able to read the file. Be wary about which entities receive a copy of your fingerprint image, so you can worry less about a data breach. However, it can be difficult for you to control this.

Generating a copy of your fingerprint

What is it? Similar to how criminals may steal a copy of your credit card information using a skimmer at a gas pump, they may be able to use a skimmer to steal your fingerprint. This likely wouldn’t happen with your smartphone, but the scammer may place a skimmer at an ATM or a similar public device that uses fingerprint IDs. The criminal then creates a fake model of your fingerprint that’s usable with fingerprint scanners.

Does it actually work? This type of hack is extremely rare for someone in public because so few public devices require a fingerprint for identification. However, if you use a fingerprint to access your company’s building or specific rooms in the building, someone might try to place a skimmer in these areas to try to steal company secrets.

How to avoid it: Look for signs of a skimming device before submitting your fingerprint at an ATM or on a similar device. They are difficult to spot because the designers are trying to hide them. However, you may notice an extra layer on the fingerprint-scanning device or extra bulk that indicates the presence of a skimmer.

Developing master prints

What is it? A master print is a man-made fingerprint that has some of the most common features of human fingerprints. It doesn’t necessarily match any particular fingerprint pattern, but it has enough similarities to the fingerprints of many people that it may be able to fool certain types of scanners.

Does it actually work? If your fingerprint scanner only looks for a few aspects of your fingerprint to identify you, the master print might match these aspects perfectly. This causes the scanner to count the master print as your print, defeating the security measures.

How to avoid it: Make sure any fingerprint scanners you are using force your fingerprint to match many aspects for identification. Think of it like this: If a fingerprint scanner only requires four points to match, it’s like having a four-character password, which is easy to crack. If the scanner requires 40 points to match, it’s like having a 40-character password. If you can change the number of details the scanner must use to make a match, force it to be as precise as possible.

Stealing your biometric passport

What is it? A biometric passport is a modern type of passport that allows for electronic scans at points of entry for a country. The passport uses a microchip to store your identifying data, such as fingerprints. The officials scanning the passport then can match your fingerprints or facial recognition to what’s stored in the biometric passport, identifying you. If a criminal could steal and hack your e-passport’s stored data, this could put your biometric information in jeopardy.

Does it actually work? Unfortunately, hackers could steal your biometric data from the e-passport. If the passport is passing data wirelessly through RFID technology, an RFID skimmer could steal the data. Someone could potentially steal your actual passport by reading the data on the microchip. More commonly, though, a hacker might steal data from a government server that stores your biometric information for the e-passport.

How to avoid it: Guard your e-passport closely, as losing the e-passport is far more dangerous than losing a traditional print-only passport. A lost biometric passport may expose your biometric data to hackers. Additionally, you have to trust that the governmental entity that is storing your passport’s biometric data takes the necessary steps to protect it from hackers. This is out of your control, unfortunately.

Exploiting software holes

What is it? Although hacking software is more of an old-school hack, it’s still effective with biometric data. If you are using software that requires a fingerprint scan to access sensitive data, it’s possible that the software has a security hole. A hacker may be able to exploit that hole to steal data.

Does it actually work? Exploiting security holes is something hackers specialize in doing. The hackers may not be specifically looking for your biometric data when exploiting the security hole. They usually are looking for almost any kind of personal data to steal. Once they have the data, they can offer it on the dark web.

How to avoid it: Always be sure you are using the latest version of the operating system on any device. Upgrade to the newest version of any software package you use as well, including your web browser. Perform software updates as soon as they are available, as many of these updates work to plug security holes.

Using phishing attacks

What is it? Another old-school method of stealing personal information from people is a phishing attack. Phishing means that the hacker tricks you into giving up your personal information by pretending to be someone else or by convincing you to click on a malicious link in an email or text message. These attacks are more common with things like passwords rather than with biometric data. 

Does it actually work? Using a phishing attack to steal your fingerprint or biometric data is difficult but possible. The hacker might convince you to click on a fake link to a fake website asking you to scan your face or provide a fingerprint scan. Because everything in the phishing scam is fake, you are sending your biometric data to a website that isn’t real. The hacker also may try to trick you into sending a copy of your fingerprint image file to a fake email address.

How to avoid it: Do not click on random links that you see in email messages or text messages. Even if those messages appear to come from someone you recognize, be wary. Hackers can assume the identity of others via email or text when they are running a phishing scam. If you are unsure, directly reach out to the person making the request to verify the legitimacy of the message you received. Don’t send sensitive personal data, fingerprint images, or security features like passwords over email or text.

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Should I Bother to Use Fingerprints and Biometrics for Security?

At this point, you may be questioning whether setting up fingerprint reading on your devices is worth the hassle.

The answer? Yes, using biometrics security measures is far better than a simple four-digit password for your devices or an eight-character password for an account for a few different reasons, including:

  • Your fingerprints are part of you, which makes stealing a replica of them extremely difficult for a hacker.
  • You won’t forget your fingerprint like you might forget a password or passcode.
  • Using fingerprint scanning or facial recognition to gain access is easy and accurate.

Use fingerprints or facial recognition as part of 2FA or MFA for the best protection

According to Hive, hackers deploying brute force attacks can solve a complex eight-character password in an hour. 

Popular Science reports that researchers at MDSec found a device for sale on the dark web that can use a brute force attack to solve a four-digit passcode on an iPhone in 55 hours on average. The device works around the iPhone’s defense mechanism that limits the number of incorrect passcode attempts in a row.

If you add a biometric scan to your passcode or password, though, you now have a significantly higher level of protection

2FA, or two-factor authentication, and MFA, or multi-factor authentication, are among the best ways to prevent identity theft. With 2FA or MFA, you set up a second means of verifying your identity to gain access to the account or device. You might use a password along with a fingerprint scan, or you may use a passcode with facial recognition when using 2FA or MFA.

Although a hacker may be able to steal one item you are using to identify yourself, such as a password, it’s highly unlikely the hacker would have the second item as well. This extra level of security often is enough to thwart a hacker.

Enable 2FA or MFA on all devices or accounts that allow you to use it.

Remember, stealing your biometrics or your fingerprint image is a hack that requires a lot of preparation. This remains a secure means of protecting your information and devices, but it’s not perfect.

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Being Proactive Is Your Best Defense Against Fingerprint Identity Theft

Although a fingerprint ID hack is still rare in current times, hackers – and the technology they use – continue to become more sophisticated. It’s not out of the realm of possibility to believe that hackers may start defeating this type of security with more regularity in years to come.

Even if you believe your information is extremely secure, it’s always smart to be vigilant against hacking schemes and scams.

Keep your eye out for oddities that are occurring with your personal information and identity. If something seems off, don’t just ignore it. Take steps to protect yourself.

Subscribing to one of the best identity theft protection services (Aura is highly recommended) can help you watch your personal information. Should someone manage to hack your fingerprint or another type of biometrics, as a subscriber, you can receive some help in protecting your information and regaining control of your life.

Although fingerprint identification is still an extremely effective way to keep your information and devices safe, it’s not completely foolproof … even when you manage to keep all 10 fingers attached to your body.