July 22, 2016
Passwords may not be the bane of civilization, but they certainly can be frustrating. Repeated use of the same password reduces the security offered, meaning most people have to remember (or keep track of) multiple passwords, many of which are seldom used and easily forgotten. One solution to this plague of passwords is the option of biometric security, which uses fingerprints, eye scans, or other unique characteristics to secure valuable information.
For every lock there’s a pick, and, in the case of biometrics, the lock pick may be 3D printing. At Michigan State University (MSU), Anil Jain leads a research team working in a partnership with Nick Paulter from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to create 3D printed phantoms. These phantoms are reproductions of fingerprints that could be used to fool biometrics.
If you’ve ever seen a spy movie in which a character beats a fingerprint scanner using a set of false fingertips that they then peel off, you have the general idea of how phantoms work. Manufacturing one is much more difficult than is shown in popular media, however, and the means to create them is a fairly new technique that is still being refined.
The process of building a phantom begins with obtaining precise information about the fingerprint to be reproduced. While fingerprint profiles collected by police may be effective, a piece of tape and some talcum powder is not. Once collected, a 2D synthetic fingerprint is created, using specialized equipment, and matched to a 3D printed finger. The entire object is then scanned, and the finger is then 3D printed again, this time incorporating the whirls, ridges and valleys found in fingerprints.
The intended application for the phantoms is to improve biometric security, rather than to foil it, by improving the technology behind fingerprint scans. The MSU research team was recently approached by law enforcement in the hope that the lab could help them unlock a dead man’s phone. The deceased was the victim of a homicide, and the police believed the phone might contain information that could help them solve the murder case.
Below you’ll find a short video about the process.