Smart Cards and Biometrics: Your Key to PKI

The cool way to make secure transactions.
Secure Key Storage

A few possibilities exist for key storage. Remember that these keys are long bit strings and memorizing them is out of the question. There are three storage possibilities: hard disk, floppy disk and smart card.

Hard disk storage provides a low-cost solution. The user's key pair is stored directly on the user's machine. The user authenticates with a shared-secret password to unlock their private key for signing. This solution does not allow for easy mobility in a desktop environment, and it put constraints on terminal applications. A user cannot easily use another machine without offloading the information to the machine they are trying to use. Problems also arise if a user tries to log in to another machine and the network is unavailable. Hard disk storage also lends itself to physical attacks, such as theft of the terminal or hard drive, both of which can be used for leisurely password cracking.

Floppy disk storage addresses the mobility problem. Now the user has a quite inexpensive and portable way of using mobile digital credentials. Someone could use another machine simply by inserting the floppy and using a traditional shared secret password for authentication. However, floppy disks are not well known for long term, robust data retention, particularly when carried around. Floppy disks are susceptible to magnetic fields (airport security stations, for example) and do not fit conveniently into your pocket or wallet.

Smart card storage presents the best scenario. Smart cards have been used for many years in Europe for a variety of applications. These credit-card-sized computers have a rugged and familiar form that fits nicely into a wallet or pocket and can take lots of physical stress. Some modern processor-based smart cards even have on-board cryptographic co-processors that allow signing and key generation to be done entirely on the card, so the private key might never need to be revealed or offloaded. The microprocessor gives the smart card a big advantage over magnetic or optical media storage. A smart-card-based PKI might be very secure indeed, eliminating any possibility of the key pair being snooped out during creation and transmittal. The initial expense is higher, since smart cards require a reader. But this additional cost is offset by much higher security for the private key and by convenient porting.

Secure Authentication with Biometrics

All three storage methods—hard disk, floppy or smart card—could use symmetric encryption (shared-secret password or PIN) to secure the private key. This accommodates single sign-on, since once a user authenticates to the key store, cryptographic protocols can be used for subsequent authentication to different applications. This would be good from an administrative point of view, but makes the security situation much worse. Now, if a cracker gains access to the shared secret password or PIN that secures the cryptographic keys, he also gains access to every cryptographically protected application or data element available to the authorized user. What we need is an authentication method to which only the authorized party has access. Enter biometrics.

The word biometrics comes from the Greek words bio and metric, meaning “life measurement”. By measuring something unique about an individual and using that to identify them, we can achieve a dramatic improvement in security of the key store. Newer biometric measurements include DNA from tissue samples, voice pattern, face pattern or even the arrangement of blood vessels in the retina or pattern of coloration in the cornea of the eye. The oldest and most widely accepted biometric is the fingerprint. The tip of every finger has a characteristic called “friction ridges”. While generally similar, no two friction ridges are exactly the same. By imaging the ridges of the fingertips, we get the fingerprint.

Most implementations of fingerprint biometrics create a template from the original image, which is a fraction of the size of the original fingerprint image. This template can be used only to compare the fingerprint against other templates, and it cannot be used to recreate the original image. Template implementations of biometrics fit well with smart cards for two reasons. First, they usually range from 100 to 600 bytes in size and can easily fit on a smart card. Second, you don't have to worry about an attacker reproducing your fingerprints from your templates and using them to impersonate you. Biometrics can aid authentication. Here is a rough outline of the procedure for authenticating yourself to a computer application:

  1. Insert your smart card into a reader. The smart card contains your cryptographic keys and biometric fingerprint data.

  2. Enter your shared-secret PIN (or password), in order to unlock the digital representation of your fingerprint. In the trade, this is known as the minutia data.

  3. Place your finger on the scanner. The scanned fingerprint is compared to the fingerprint data on the smart card.

  4. If the data matches, the smart-card fingerprint data is converted into a number and combined with the smart-card secret PIN (retrieved in Step 2) and used as a symmetric cryptographic key to decrypt the private key.

  5. A nonce (random number) is passed from the computer application to the smart card.

  6. The private key on the smart card is used to encrypt the nonce and pass it back to the application.

  7. The application verifies that a certified public key obtained from the network-based directory service or from the card does, in fact, decrypt the encrypted message from the card and reveal the same nonce that was originally passed to the card.

This process irrefutably authenticates the person presenting the card as the same person to whom the cryptographic keys belong and provides the necessary tight binding between the cryptographic key storage and the authorized user of the cryptographic keys.

By this time, you are probably asking, “Just how well do these biometrics work? What is the margin for error?” Two terms describe the functionality of biometrics. The false acceptance rate (FAR) is the probability that an intruder is accepted with a measurement that does not belong to the enrolled user. The false rejection rate (FRR) is the probability that an enrolled user is not recognized. Good biometrics have low FAR and low FRR, but unfortunately few standardized tests are available to determine these results, as each biometric read takes measurements in a slightly different way. Thus, third-party verification is very important when evaluating any biometric.

As a rule, there is usually a trade-off between security and convenience. Biometrics are no exception. In general, the better their security (the lower the FAR), the more inconvenience there is to the user, because more false rejections occur. Similarly, the more convenient the system is to use, the poorer the security is. Good biometric systems allow the user to choose from a wide range of possible FAR/FRR levels, so that convenience can be maximized for the desired level of security.

Exposure to a few detective movies can cause the average person to ask the macabre but pertinent question, “How can these devices ensure that the finger is alive?” Attempts have been made to solve this problem. Some vendors measure the heat of the finger to ensure that it is at body temperature, which makes the system difficult to use in cold climates or with people who are predisposed to cold hands. Other vendors measure the conductivity of the finger to prevent forged fingerprints (for example, silicone castings). This does not address the dead finger issue, but it is worth noting that conductivity measurements can be fooled with a bit of saline solution on the silicone casting. The best solutions spectroscopically measure the amount of oxygenated hemoglobin in the blood, as this measurement is the most difficult to fool and is radically different for live and dead fingers, but again there is a trade-off between price and necessity. Are you authenticating yourself to a space shuttle launch or the garage door?

Figure 3.

One of the best products to merge smart-card technology and biometrics is the BioMouse Plus from American Biometric Company ( The BioMouse Plus is an integrated smart-card reader and fingerprint scanner. A Linux toolkit is provided for developers, with documentation on how to create biometric and smart-card aware applications. The toolkit is complete with examples, sample source code, drivers and libraries. In fact, over 13 platforms are supported, including most flavors of UNIX, Windows and MS-DOS.



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Smart cards and Biometrics based Public Distribution Systems

Anonymous's picture

Hey can anyone suggest what wil b d modules in a Smart cards and Biometrics based Public Distribution Systems(PDS).

dude how the hell do i get

Anonymous's picture

dude how the hell do i get the dam source code for this project...?

Heh, I always thought

Anonymous's picture

Heh, I always thought biometrics couldn't be used as keying material, I thought the devices using it would be like, "oh your fingerprint matches! here you go have this plaintext from my hdd!". Good to know that's not true.

Re: Smart Cards and Biometrics: Your Key to PKI

mahadevan_keyan's picture

Have you guys looked at key generation from Biometrics. That will solve the problem of key management. We can look at applications like e-voting which is currently a hot topic