Why Making A Peace Sign In Public Is Now A Security Risk

from the and-not-just-for-political-reasons dept

The British have a number of traditions. Some, such as drinking tea, are famous around the world. Less well-known is a habit of revealing highly-confidential information by carrying pieces of paper in public that photographers using long-focus lenses are able to snap and then magnify to read. The Guardian wrote an entire article on the subject, detailing how numerous embarrassing leaks occurred in the UK because people forgot to put the documents they were holding in some kind of opaque folder. On one occasion, an anti-terror operation had to be brought forward when Britain's most senior counterterrorism officer walked around with top secret documents on display -- a blunder that cost him his job.

This mistake is so common that there are notices by the door of the UK Prime Minister's residence at Number 10 Downing Street reminding people not to walk out with confidential material that is exposed. The fact that there is a photographer with a long-focus lens who hangs around outside No 10 in the hope that they do precisely that shows how often they ignore this warning.

Although the Brits have practically turned this activity into another weird sport alongside cricket, it's not unknown in the US. For example, the following happened at the end of November last year:

Potential Donald Trump cabinet pick Kris Kobach accidentally leaked Department of Homeland Security plans when posing for a press photograph with the president-elect. Using photo editing tools, a zoomed-in view on the documents being carried by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach reveals a plan to put Trump’s hard-line immigration platform into practice.

Aside from the carelessness of the people involved, the problem has arisen because long-focus lenses are now so powerful and commonly-deployed that it is relatively easy to capture a high-quality image of an exposed document so that its contents can be read. That's a problem that will only get worse as camera technology advances, especially combined with digital enhancement techniques. If this story on the BBC's website is to be believed, it's not just documents that are now at risk as a result:

A Japanese researcher says doing the peace sign in a photo could lead to your fingerprints being stolen.

They might be easy to recreate if your digits are "in focus with strong lighting".

That claim is from Isao Echizen, from the National Institute of Informatics (NIII), who says prints could then be made "widely available".

That's clearly a big problem at a time when fingerprints are increasingly being used to unlock digital devices, and to provide access to sensitive data. The British experience shows it's hard enough to shield confidential papers; keeping fingerprints out of high-resolution photos seems like an impossible task.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and +glynmoody on Google+

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Filed Under: fingerprints, photographs, privacy


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  1. icon
    Roger Strong (profile), 24 Jan 2017 @ 12:37pm

    Re: Biometrics

    Yup. In an ideal world biometrics are unique IDs, but they're not secrets.

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