Cutesy Selfies Can Lead to Identity Theft, Police Warn

Whether accompanied by a pout or a smile, photographs of Chinese people will just about always include the sight of the "V" hand gesture. And yet, this commonplace Chinese habit is said to contain a hidden danger that may see the trend (finally) amputated.

Chinese authorities are now warning the public that displaying the V-sign in a photograph may put them at risk of identity theft, claiming fingerprints can be extracted from these images and used to gain access to personal user accounts.

Dr Yin Desen, a professor at the No. 1 Certification Technology Research Center of the Public Security Bureau, told the Beijing News that digitally extracting fingerprints from V-sign photos is a "credible threat" to identity theft. 

Dr Yin said that although it may be difficult to obtain someone's fingerprints from a single photo, doing so from a video is "more concise and thorough."

The alarm over V-signs was instigated on Monday when Xinhua reported a professor from Japan's National Institute of Informatics had made the discovery. Professor Yue Qiangong (Chinese version of his name) warned that hackers are able to steal fingerprints from online photographs, and urged people everywhere to safeguard their fingertips.

With so many Chinese flashing V-signs in countless photos on social media platforms, this seems like a huge security breach waiting to happen. However, Professor Yue's warning against photography fingerprint forgery comes two years after a hacker claimed to have already done it.

In December 2014, a cyber-security expert named Jan Krissler claimed to have successfully digitally cloned the fingerprints of German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen. Krissler, who goes by the hacker name Starbug, was able to replicate von der Leyen's thumbprint just by using commercial software and photographs of her taken at a press conference.

The stunt confirmed the suspicion of many security experts at the time that fingerprints can no longer be considered a viable biometric security measure. In light of this, some companies have switched to "living biometrics" for their security needs. This technology records the biological reading of a living person and is much more difficult to replicate, An example of living biometrics is the finger vein recognition system currently used by Barclays bank in Japan.

So although fingerprints are unique to each person, this doesn't signify that they are a good security measure. Krissler himself said, "I consider my password safer than my fingerprint ... My password is in my head, and if I’m careful when typing, I remain the only one who knows it."

And yet, the use of fingerprints as a biometric security measure remains popular in China, especially in apps for smartphones. Alipay, the top online payment system in China with millions of users, introduced a fingerprint biometric feature in January of last year. 

All the same, any panic over China's favorite photography prop seems unfounded. 

Despite warning the public, Dr Yin admitted that crimes involving fingerprint forgery are rare in China. Dr Yin also noted that fingerprints are normally left behind by people all the time, and that taking a sample from a physical location is easy enough to do.

And while Professor Yue was likely considering the best interests of the public by warning against the use of V-signs, he also wanted to promote his own product. 

As seen in the Xinhua report, Yue said consumers can prevent hackers from stealing their fingerprints by concealing the tips of their fingers with a white titanium oxidizing membrane, a product that he developed.

Yue's anti-identity theft product will be available for commercial sale within two years, at which time fingerprint biometrics may no longer be used in China, just as is the practice in some parts of the world currently.

More stories from this author here.

Images: EnstarziFuunTVMostChina DailyRedocn1234578gXinmin

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A case for reviving gloves not only as a fashion statement but for access control.

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