If A Phone's Facial Recognition Security Can Be Defeated By A Picture Of A Face, What Good Is It?

from the a-thousand-logins dept

No technology is perfect and facial recognition software is obviously no exception. But whereas law enforcement groups use this flawed technology in too many instances, device manufacturers are beginning to ship out security features that rely on facial recognition software almost ubiquitously. Many might look at this modern technology and imagine defeating it and logging into another person’s phone would resemble some kind of Mission Impossible style convolution. Sadly, as proven again recently with the release of Samsung’s Galaxy S8, defeating the security feature is laughably simple.

With the public’s first exposure to the Galaxy S8 happening a few days ago, it was only a matter of time until one of these biometric solutions had some holes poked in it.

One of those holes is that Galaxy S8’s face recognition can be tricked with a photo. At least this is what a video from Spanish Periscope user Marcianophone purports. About 6 minutes into the 40-minute Spanish-language video, you can see the attendee take a selfie with his personal phone, then point it at the Galaxy S8, which is trained to unlock with his face. It only takes a few minutes of fiddling before the Galaxy S8 gives in and unlocks with just a picture, moving from the “secure” lock screen right to the home screen. Once the user dials in his technique, he shows the trick is easily repeatable.

This trick actually goes back quite a ways to earlier versions of the Android OS. Google had attempted to defeat this workaround by requiring users to blink during the facial recognition scan. That was almost immediately defeated by phone-breakers having to have two pictures instead of one, including one with the persons eyes closed and then switching between pictures during the scan. If you aren’t laughing as you’re picturing this in your head, your sense of humor is broken, because it’s fairly hilarious.

Less funny is the obvious question: why bother with this stuff at all if it’s so easily defeated? Samsung, to its credit, doesn’t allow facial recognition to authorize Samsung purchases. If it’s not good enough for that, why should it be good enough to serve as a locking mechanism for the phone at all? Other locks, including other biometric locks, perform far better. Maybe it would be best to table this security feature until it’s, you know, secure.

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Companies: samsung

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Comments on “If A Phone's Facial Recognition Security Can Be Defeated By A Picture Of A Face, What Good Is It?”

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OldMugwump (profile) says:

Re: convenience feature and not a security feature

As with all things security, it depends on how much security you need, the consequences of failure, and who your opponent is.

There are lots of things for which minimal security is fine – when a breach involves minor consequences you can easily live with.

For other things you need more security. If your phone can transfer away your life savings, for example.

And if your opponent is the NSA you need stronger security than if it’s the nosy guy in the next cube at work.

Nobody should expect a single level of security to be right for everyone, or for everything.

Stronger security has costs that you don’t want to pay for trivial gains.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: convenience feature and not a security feature

Unless the nosy guy in the next cubicle works for the NSA. But then, if he works for the NSA, he’s probably working in the NSA’s buildings, which means that you’re working in the NSA’s buildings, which means that you also work for the NSA, which means that you must have the strongest possible encryption against your own access.

Ok, that’s done it. My head’s exploded.

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Dear Mr. Comey,

The brightest minds in our police department have discovered an amazing, incredible hack. As you know, once a suspect is arrested for resisting arrest, their mugshot is normally taken. Most police departments have someone of sufficient technical skill and capability who are able to somehow use the mugshot to unlock the suspect’s phone. That enables the phone to be searched to provide additional basis for the the arrest.

Just thought you would like to know. The federal government may be able to find people skilled enough to use this same sophisticated technique.


Chief Donut Eater

Psilax (profile) says:

Re: convenience vs security

I’m with you, but it does depend on your threat model. At home, the primary threat to my phone is my horrible, attentive, shoulder-surfing kids who invariably work out every digital passcode after watching me for a few weeks. Fingerprint unlock is perfect for this scenario. At the US border, not so much. That’s a time to depend on a passcode locked inside my head.

The Wanderer (profile) says:

Re: Re: convenience vs security

That’s why the correct solution is to use both.

In fact, that points back to one of the key things people keep saying (and other people seem to miss) about this: biometrics make excellent replacements for usernames, but very poor replacements for passwords.

Require face- or fingerprint-recognition before the device asks for the passcode, then require the passcode before the device actually becomes unlocked. Slightly less convenient than either alone, but aside from that, more or less the best of both worlds.

Anonymous Coward says:

>Maybe it would be best to table this security feature until it’s, you know, secure.

In the absence of a threat model, the word secure has no meaning. Not everyone requires bars outside their windows.

If you lost your phone on the street, it’s highly unlikely a thief would also happen to have a picture of you to defeat this system.

Cdaragorn (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Exactly. The security world needs to give up on biometrics. As flawed as passwords are, biometrics are NOT better.

The very fact that you cannot change your biometrics breaks one of the basic requirements of security. To say nothing of the fact that anyone can grab them from you without needing your help in any way.

AEIO_ (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"You can change your password, but good luck changing your fingerprints, your iris, your face."

That’s what reincarnation is for. Just hope they don’t wipe your mind in the process — I don’t think they’ve quite got the process down yet.

(1) http://people.com/books/meet-the-boy-who-believes-he-was-lou-gehrig-in-a-past-life-his-mom-is-convinced-too/ — because if you can’t convince your mom, you’re sure not going to convince anyone else.

Anonymous Coward says:

The government and various LEO’s would love for these easily defeated biometric “security” features to be the standard on all phones. No need to go to court or try to force someone to open the phone at the border or wherever, they can just show the phone your picture and they’re in. These kinds of things just shouldn’t be used for security or at the very least it shouldn’t be the sole step for any security.

Jamie (profile) says:

Re: It's the same (or worse) in windows.

The facial recognition built into Windows 10 (“Windows Hello”) is really quite good. It requires a 3D camera system that can detect depth, and cannot be defeated by a 2D photo or video. However, the number of laptops/tablets out there that have this hardware is pretty small.

It’s quite possible that your friend’s laptop is running Lenovo’s Veriface software, which only requires a 2D camera. The lack of depth sensing makes it much easier to fool. Similarly, Dell laptops use SensibleVision’s FastAccess software, which has the same limitations.

TKnarr (profile) says:

I’d like a variant of two-factor: my fingerprint can unlock the phone alone while connected to my headset or PC via Bluetooth, otherwise it requires the PIN or password in addition to the fingerprint.

To be nasty, let it ask for the PIN/password regardless of what fingerprint it scanned but too many failed PIN/password attempts with the wrong fingerprint presented would lock out all further attempts.

Anonymous Coward says:

Why is it so hard for companies to get this right. Bio metrics should be replacing USERNAMES not passwords. So then suddenly the phone will not unlock without seeing your face and having a passcode. This makes it so the trivial picture trick isn’t that important while at the same time making it more of a pain for someone to get into your phone.

AnonJr (profile) says:

Worth Considering

Samsung, to its credit, doesn’t allow facial recognition to authorize Samsung purchases. If it’s not good enough for that, why should it be good enough to serve as a locking mechanism for the phone at all? Other locks, including other biometric locks, perform far better. Maybe it would be best to table this security feature until it’s, you know, secure.

While I agree that it’s good that Samsung isn’t allowing this sort of authentication for financial transactions, I’m not sure we should go so far as to say "don’t use it".

Don’t forget, it wasn’t that long ago that fingerprint scanners were quite the joke. (and to a lesser extent, still can be)

It’s going to take time in the real world to refine the techniques for these sorts of systems. You can only do so much in the controlled lab settings, and only a small bit more with in-house testing.

That said, you would think they would have known that someone was going to try the photo thing… it’s not like that’s a new workaround for facial recognition.

DebbyS (profile) says:

Funny face

I don’t have a cell phone (well, I have a tiny Posh to play mp3s), so I don’t know about facial recognition software. Could the phone’s owner simply have the phone imprint (so to speak) on the owner making a funny face (sticks tongue out, crosses eyes/closes one eye, looks 3/4 profile at phone, holds hand over half of face, etc.)? Would then a normal picture (or holding phone to owner in a line up) then NOT work to unlock the phone? Just curious.

Cdaragorn (profile) says:

Re: Funny face

That would require too detailed a case to work. Basically, it would make it almost impossible for the person to ever unlock their phone again because they’d have to get that exact facial expression exactly right the second time, which is next to impossible for any person to do.

Facial recognition attempts to analyze several generic data points to tell if it’s likely the same face looking back at it. This actually describes part of the problem with biometrics. You never get 100% match accuracy, so you’re always guessing and accepting some degree of inaccuracy.

Concerned consumer (profile) says:

With iPhone 8 on verge of release, this subject is extremely relevant and I hope it’s revisited. Why wouldn’t a mugger, violent criminal, or even law enforcement simply point the confiscated phone at the owner’s face? The owner may not be in control of their own phone at the time, they may be victimized, beat down, or subdued in some way. Criminals may become more brazen, knowing they can immediately unlock the victim’s phone at the point of confiscation. I prefer to keep my security sourced from the inside of my head, not what’s on the outside of it.

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