Home > Identity Theft and Scams > What Can Hackers Do With My Fingerprints?

Comments 0 Comments
Advertiser Disclosure


Credit card fraud has been a persistent problem in recent years, particularly in the U.S. where the transition to EMV chip-enabled credit cards has only just begun. To try to address this issue (and stem their losses) many financial institutions, startups and bank partners have been experimenting with new ways to protect payments. One security measure gaining some steam is the use of a digital fingerprints to authenticate transactions. Mobile payments platform Apple Pay and Samsung Pay, for example, use fingerprint scans, and MasterCard has been experimenting with using this particular biometric (and a few others) to protect credit cards.

But should you be worried about such a sensitive piece of biological info ending up the wrong hands? And what could happen if it did?

The Anatomy of Your Digital Fingerprint

The answer, it seems, is a bit tricky. For starters, the information being used to authenticate phones and cards isn’t yet as sensitive as you may think. Major biometric authenticators, like Apple Touch ID, currently don’t capture your full fingerprint. Instead, they scan small sections to create a mathematical representation of it.

This algorithm is what gets stored on your device or card. And, thanks to these and other security measures, “you can’t reverse-engineer a fingerprint by stealing the device,” Jason Oxman, CEO of the Electronic Transactions Association, said. (Whether you can hack into a device by reverse-engineering a fake fingerprint is a bit more up in the air, since it has, apparently, been done before.)

Primed for the Hacking?

Right now, there’s not much someone could do, should they get ahold of these fingerprint algorithms since they’re not in widespread use (when it comes to authenticating financial accounts or otherwise.) But that’s not to say thieves won’t find a way to monetize the information in the future.

“We don’t know what can be done with it yet,” Eva Velasquez, CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center, said. She correlates early use of the biometric to the initial introduction of Social Security numbers. Originally intended to identify a person for government benefits and taxation purposes, it was ultimately adopted by the financial services industry as a way to authenticate someone applying for a loan or bank account. As such, now, should someone get hold of your government-issued nine digits, they could easily take out a loan or apply for credit and run up debts in your name.

Right now fingerprints are used sparingly (largely by law enforcement or government agencies for crucial security purposes), but “we really have to proceed with caution when we think about that historic issue,” Velazquez said. If biometrics were ever used to verify a host of things — from bank accounts to home security systems to travel verifications — there could be an equally long list of how they (and you) could be compromised. And, should a thief get a hold of your fingerprints, they aren’t exactly easy to change.

“There is a process in place to change your Social Security number,” Velazquez said. “It’s hardly ever used … but we know it is exists.” Your fingerprint, however, is “unchangeable,” she said.

What You Should Know

That’s not to say exactly that you should shy away from biometrics completely, since as a replacement password, “the finger is certainly a more secure implementation of security,” Oxman said. But if you are trying these methods out, you need to go in with your eyes open.

It’s also in your best interest to read all the terms and conditions associated with the biometric in use so you know, among other things, what exactly is being scanned, where it is being stored and what security features are in place to lock down the information should your device get stolen or the information be otherwise compromised.

And, no matter what security features you have in use on your payment cards, you will still want to monitor financial account statements for signs of fraud. You can also monitor your credit to spot signs of new-account fraud. (You can pull your free annual credit reports at AnnualCreditReport.com and see your credit scores for free each month on Credit.com.) Signs of your identity has been stolen include a sudden drop in credit score, mysterious accounts or high balances you weren’t aware of.

More on Identity Theft:

Image: iStock

Comments on articles and responses to those comments are not provided or commissioned by a bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by a bank advertiser. It is not a bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

Please note that our comments are moderated, so it may take a little time before you see them on the page. Thanks for your patience.

Credit.com receives compensation for the financial products and services advertised on this site if our users apply for and sign up for any of them.

Hello, Reader!

Thanks for checking out Credit.com. We hope you find the site and the journalism we produce useful. We wanted to take some time to tell you a bit about ourselves.

Our People

The Credit.com editorial team is staffed by a team of editors and reporters, each with many years of financial reporting experience. We’ve worked for places like the New York Times, American Banker, Frontline, TheStreet.com, Business Insider, ABC News, NBC News, CNBC and many others. We also employ a few freelancers and more than 50 contributors (these are typically subject matter experts from the worlds of finance, academia, politics, business and elsewhere).

Our Reporting

We take great pains to ensure that the articles, video and graphics you see on Credit.com are thoroughly reported and fact-checked. Each story is read by two separate editors, and we adhere to the highest editorial standards. We’re not perfect, however, and if you see something that you think is wrong, please email us at editorial team [at] credit [dot] com,

The Credit.com editorial team is committed to providing our readers and viewers with sound, well-reported and understandable information designed to inform and empower. We won’t tell you what to do. We will, however, do our best to explain the consequences of various actions, thereby arming you with the information you need to make decisions that are in your best interests. We also write about things relating to money and finance we think are interesting and want to share.

In addition to appearing on Credit.com, our articles are syndicated to dozens of other news sites. We have more than 100 partners, including MSN, ABC News, CBS News, Yahoo, Marketwatch, Scripps, Money Magazine and many others. This network operates similarly to the Associated Press or Reuters, except we focus almost exclusively on issues relating to personal finance. These are not advertorial or paid placements, rather we provide these articles to our partners in most cases for free. These relationships create more awareness of Credit.com in general and they result in more traffic to us as well.

Our Business Model

Credit.com’s journalism is largely supported by an e-commerce business model. Rather than rely on revenue from display ad impressions, Credit.com maintains a financial marketplace separate from its editorial pages. When someone navigates to those pages, and applies for a credit card, for example, Credit.com will get paid what is essentially a finder’s fee if that person ends up getting the card. That doesn’t mean, however, that our editorial decisions are informed by the products available in our marketplace. The editorial team chooses what to write about and how to write about it independently of the decisions and priorities of the business side of the company. In fact, we maintain a strict and important firewall between the editorial and business departments. Our mission as journalists is to serve the reader, not the advertiser. In that sense, we are no different from any other news organization that is supported by ad revenue.

Visitors to Credit.com are also able to register for a free Credit.com account, which gives them access to a tool called The Credit Report Card. This tool provides users with two free credit scores and a breakdown of the information in their Experian credit report, updated twice monthly. Again, this tool is entirely free, and we mention that frequently in our articles, because we think that it’s a good thing for users to have access to data like this. Separate from its educational value, there is also a business angle to the Credit Report Card. Registered users can be matched with products and services for which they are most likely to qualify. In other words, if you register and you find that your credit is less than stellar, Credit.com won’t recommend a high-end platinum credit card that requires an excellent credit score You’d likely get rejected, and that’s no good for you or Credit.com. You’d be no closer to getting a product you need, there’d be a wasted inquiry on your credit report, and Credit.com wouldn’t get paid. These are essentially what are commonly referred to as "targeted ads" in the world of the Internet. Despite all of this, however, even if you never apply for any product, the Credit Report Card will remain free, and none of this will impact how the editorial team reports on credit and credit scores.

Your Stories

Lastly, much of what we do is informed by our own experiences as well as the experiences of our readers. We want to tell your stories if you’re interested in sharing them. Please email us at story ideas [at] credit [dot] com with ideas or visit us on Facebook or Twitter.

Thanks for stopping by.

- The Credit.com Editorial Team