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Calm yourselves, doing the peace sign won’t put you at risk of identity theft

Here’s a good example of how things can get exaggerated in the world of Chinese whispers that is the internet.

It all started on January 9 this year, when a Japanese outlet published an article suggesting that doing the peace sign in selfies would put people at risk of identity theft.

The original article spawned a flurry of stories in Japanese media and was then picked up by Western outlets such as CNET and Digital Trends.

It details the work of Isao Echizen, a professor at the Digital Content and Media Sciences Research Division of the National Institute of Informatics (NII). He claimed that by enhancing high-definition photos, he had been able to capture subjects’ fingerprints accurately enough to be stolen.

We aren’t talking about fingers directly in front of the camera either; Echizen said he had successfully obtained prints from exposed fingers up to three metres away.

Echizen then warned people about flashing the peace sign – which is hugely popular in Japan – since it might give would-be hackers a clear shot at snagging fingerprints.

Does this sound a little fishy? It’s certainly plausible, but it does have the ring of mild hysteria to it.

Snopes, a site dedicated to assessing the validity of rumours, delved a bit deeper into the story and found that its claims are still unproven.

To begin with, the original article has since been removed, which is never a good sign. Looking at this archived version, Snopes notes that it’s less about identity theft and more about how the NII is trying to develop technology to prevent such theft in the future.

By the time the story got to the Daily Mail, the sentiment changed from “this is something that might be possible one day”, to “OMG your selfies are allowing crooks to steal your identity RIGHT NOW! STOP USING THE PEACE SIGN!”

In fact, there appears to be zero evidence that hackers are currently using photographs to capture people’s fingerprints. Sure, it might happen one day, but not yet.

Japanese girls doing the peace sign.

They’ll be fine.

Refinery 29 spoke to Jason Chaikin, president of a biometric verification company that produces hi-res fingerprint sensors for mobile devices. He told the site: “There’s no more vulnerability now than there was a year or two years ago. I’m guessing that the recent hype is because one organisation wants to promote a solution to a nonproblem.”

Chaikin says that even though it is technically possible, it would require a lot of factors to align. You’d need a perfect shot of the finger, a really good camera, and even moulds and models of the print. In other words, the chances are so low you don’t have to worry about it.

Why is the peace sign so popular in Japan anyway?

According to Time, there are three competing theories.

One is that it was started by Janet Lynn, an American figure skater who competed in the 1972 Sapporo Olympics. She didn’t win the gold, but she was adored by Japanese media, and she frequently flashed the peace sign.

Another theory is that it became popular after appearing in the 1968 baseball manga Kyojin no Hoshi. In that comic, the peace sign was used in a more traditional sense – to symbolise victory.

The final theory is that the gesture was popularised by pop singer Jun Inoue. She supposedly flashed a peace sign during the filming of a Konica commercial and the general public soon followed suit.

It could well be a combination of all three, but what we do know for sure is that it is still safe to flash a peace sign when posing for a photo.

And if hackers do get more sophisticated at this kind of identity theft then at least us ‘Strayans have a secret weapon.

Yup, we’ll just flip that peace sign around and say, “Up yours, mate!”

About the author

Stefan is an Adelaide-based freelance writer. In his spare time, he plays tennis badly, collects vinyl and brushes up on his Mandarin. Follow Stefan on Twitter

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