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The Dark Side of Biometrics

The scenario: You were trying to get a good deal on a 20-megapixel camera. Instead you ended up with an empty bank account and a ruined credit history. The culprit was your biometric debit card, which was designed to thwart identity theft but instead let a thief impersonate you.

By 2010, after leaks of millions of credit card numbers, financial companies rolled out biometric credit and ATM check cards, which required that a card user's fingerprint (examined by a fingerprint reader) match the account holder's fingerprint (stored on the card). The seemingly foolproof technology took off, and within a few years new PCs came equipped with software-enabled fingerprint readers that allowed users to authorize financial transactions over the Internet.

When you used your biometrically enabled ATM check card to purchase the camera, you sent your IP address, card number, and digital fingerprint over the Internet to a credit card server. But your information got intercepted in transit and then sold on a message board. Now someone has depleted your checking account, and you can't prove it wasn't you because your fingerprint is all over the transactions.

Eventually the problem will be resolved in your favor. But for the time being, you'll have to rely on an almost extinct form of payment: cash.

Why it might happen: "It's the classic 'The computer can't be wrong' scenario," says PGP's Callas. "The opportunities for a criminal in the middle are huge, and the risk for the person who has the card is very high because people tend to believe what the biometric says."

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Ryan Singel is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.
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