Are Biometrics the Answer to the Password Problem?

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2005-06-16 Print this article Print

Opinion: Nobody uses passwords the way they should; who's got the patience and memory for it? But even biometrics, the holy grail of identification, could be problematic.

Over the years Ive tried to get better at my use of passwords, especially since Im supposed to tell other people how to manage security. I have to confess: Im not where I want to be, and I bet you arent either. Do you use complex passwords for all of your logins where confidential information is at stake? Do you change them periodically to some other sufficiently long and complex word? I ask around, and Im convinced that the only people who do such things are forced to do so by a company policy enforced by IT.
And in such cases, the company has an increased burden of support for the inevitable lost passwords.

There are a number of technological solutions. At the personal level there are password managers such as Norton Password Manager and the open-source Password Safe utility, but these have a number of limitations, chief among them the fact that their own master password becomes a central point of compromise through which all the other passwords are accessible. Click here to read more about VeriSign and RSA Securitys two-factor authentication solutions. Such password managers are also generally limited to use on one computer. I know this isnt good enough for me.

USB key devices are a focus for the security industry to address these limitations. A number of companies have developed a variety of solutions. The most obvious approach is that in Microsofts Fingerprint Reader. However, as the products license says, this is not really as much a security device as a convenience device, since it doesnt replace passwords as much as use the fingerprint to control access to a password cache.

Companies like UPEK have a more sophisticated approach, integrating security all the way up the software stack rather than just mimicking a password. Their hardware is built into certain ThinkPad models.

But while biometric authentication might fit well in a corporate network, there is no (to my knowledge) serious work under way to allow true biometric authentication for the sorts of Internet logins normal people use, such as for their bank. And its not necessarily the answer, anyway. If a fingerprint is the only factor, then it, too, can be mimicked and stolen in a phishing attempt.

So theres just no way around these things being complicated. Either users have to manage increasing numbers of passwords while under assault from malware and phishing attacks, or they have to manage complicated and expensive security mechanisms that they will have a hard time appreciating. I like the odds for the phishers better than for security.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983. He can be reached at Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest security news, reviews and analysis. And for insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at Security Center Editor Larry Seltzers Weblog.
Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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