Focus on Identity, Vigilance

By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2002-09-09 Print this article Print

The terrorist attacks of last september permanently changed the terms of debate for subsequent discussions of IT security and the technical response to potential terrorist threats.

The terrorist attacks of last september permanently changed the terms of debate for subsequent discussions of IT security and the technical response to potential terrorist threats.

Almost no imaginable attack can now be dismissed, and it is no longer a confession of incompetence to acknowledge that at least some attacks will succeed.

Some technologies were unduly demonized in Septembers aftermath. For example, there was an immediate flurry of ill-conceived proposals to attempt restrictions on access to encryption. Thankfully, this notion is no longer holding sway among even the most ill-informed legislators or the most opportunistic enforcement agencies.

As noted in Februarys position statement from the IEEE, "Encryption is likely to be used by criminals to protect their communications, but their use of encryption is not necessarily obvious. ... Laws prohibiting the use of unescrowed, strong encryption would be of little use to law enforcement efforts."

Any broad use of Web services will depend on well-integrated encryption; distributed storage and processing solutions must also incorporate encryption to protect data and real-time business intelligence.

Enterprises should, therefore, be developing internal guidelines—and monitoring relevant industry standards and regulatory requirements—to strike a balance between the desired degree and duration of cryptographic protection and the performance overhead and costs of processor-intensive crypto algorithms.

Other technologies enjoyed brief moments in the spotlight of our hopes for a quick technology fix. Face recognition, for example, can be quite effective under controlled conditions, but tests in public airport security checkpoints during the past year have been disappointing. Tests in Palm Beach, Fla., this spring and in Boston this summer failed to limit false alarms to acceptable levels while still consistently recognizing "suspects" (played by airport employees).

More intrusive technologies, such as eye and fingerprint matching, have also failed to live up to their hype. Strategies as simple as breathing on a fingerprint scanner, making the previous users fingerprint reappear to be re-scanned, are dismayingly effective.

Prices for iris scanners, which are harder to fool and less likely to falsely reject legitimate users, are coming down into the same $100-plus price range as fingerprint scanners, but administrative issues still impede adoption: In eWeek Labs review of the Panasonic Biometric Groups Authenticam, for example, we found the included software far better suited to individual workstation access control than to large-scale network security. (For more on the use of biometrics, see story, left.)

Rather than pushing the envelope of cost, not to mention possible user discomfort with the "Minority Report" aura of pervasive biometrics, enterprises will do better to streamline their identity management systems. This means integrating e-mail, voice mail, workflow and file-sharing systems under well-defined privilege management schemes, rather than devoting resources to elaborate and conspicuous "gee-whiz" hardware.

Peter Coffee is Director of Platform Research at, where he serves as a liaison with the developer community to define the opportunity and clarify developers' technical requirements on the company's evolving Apex Platform. Peter previously spent 18 years with eWEEK (formerly PC Week), the national news magazine of enterprise technology practice, where he reviewed software development tools and methods and wrote regular columns on emerging technologies and professional community issues.Before he began writing full-time in 1989, Peter spent eleven years in technical and management positions at Exxon and The Aerospace Corporation, including management of the latter company's first desktop computing planning team and applied research in applications of artificial intelligence techniques. He holds an engineering degree from MIT and an MBA from Pepperdine University, he has held teaching appointments in computer science, business analytics and information systems management at Pepperdine, UCLA, and Chapman College.

Submit a Comment

Loading Comments...
Manage your Newsletters: Login   Register My Newsletters

Rocket Fuel