Biometric information is about as personal as data gets. But Google’s Android partners are still failing to protect it, as researchers from security firm FireEye will discuss this week at RSA, pointing to failures in the Samsung Galaxy S5 and other unnamed Android devices.
Though the affected phone makers have tried to separate and encrypt the information in a separate secure zone, it’s possible to grab the biometric data before it reaches that protected area and create copies of people’s fingerprints for further attacks, said Tao Wei and Yulong Zhang from FireEye.
The issue appears startlingly straightforward: an attacker could focus on collecting data coming from the Android devices’ fingerprint sensors rather than trying to break into the trusted zone, according to Wei and Zhang, who are presenting their findings at RSA Conference tomorrow. Any hacker who can acquire user-level access and can run a program as root, the lowest level of access on computers and smartphones, can easily collect fingerprint information from the affected Android phones, they said. On the Samsung Galaxy S5, they wouldn’t need to go as deep, with malware needing only system-level access.
“If the attacker can break the kernel [the core of the Android operating system], although he cannot access the fingerprint data stored int he trusted zone, he can directly read the fingerprint sensor at any time. Every time you touch the fingerprint sensor, the attacker can steal your fingerprint,” Zhang told. “You can get the data and from the data you can generate the image of your fingerprint. After that you can do whatever you want.”
Wei and Zhang said they had contacted Samsung, but had not heard back about any updates for users. The vulnerability is not resident on Android 5.0 Lollipop or above, so users should upgrade where they can, the researchers added. “Samsung takes consumer privacy and data security very seriously. We are currently investigating FireEye’s claims,” a Samsung spokesperson said over email
The rise of biometrics
Despite manifold security concerns, biometrics are set to take over mobile devices as the primary form of authentication. Alongside Samsung’s devices, Apple’s TouchID is one of the more famous, and infamously bypassed, forms of biometrics on the market. Microsoft is testing out a range of biometric options for its upcoming Windows 10 operating system. Security researcher Jan “Starbug” Krissler, who recently claimed he could bypass iris scanners just by holding up high-resolution print outs to the camera, said he’d been doing some work with Microsoft to test their ocular logins for Windows 10.
Wei and Zhang said they had not yet gone beyond testing Android devices. Though they did not claim all Android phones below 5.0 with fingerprint authentication were affected, they said the issue is likely more widespread than just Samsung’s phone. Other Android devices using fingerprint sensors include the HTC One Max, the Motorola Atrix, the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 and Edge, the Galaxy S6, and the Huawei Ascend Mate 7. “We only tested a limited number of devices. While we expect the issue is more widespread, we are not sure,” a FireEye spokesperson added over email.