PC, notebook security at the touch of a finger

Prints: Home users can get affordable biometric readers that help guard access to their computers and manage Web site passwords.

May 09, 2002|By Kevin Washington | Kevin Washington,SUN STAFF

For years, government agencies and private companies have turned to science fiction- inspired technology to protect their most precious secrets. Today, home PC users have access to the same kind of high-tech protection for their notebook and desktop computers.

For about $100, people who want to keep personal information personal or more easily manage passwords on multiple Web sites can get help at the touch of a finger - or more precisely, a fingerprint.

Several manufacturers offer fingerprint readers that guard access to computers. Some are standalone units, while others are built into mice, PC cards and other dual-purpose gadgets.

Experts say the use of these readers and other biometric devices for security purposes is growing rapidly. Fingerprint and iris scanners have been popping up at airports, giving authorized employees quick access to secure areas or helping passengers to get through customs quickly. Some stadiums in Europe use facial scanning to keep out ruffians who have caused trouble in the past. Grocery stores have been tying fingerprints to checking and credit accounts, while smart cards with biometric data are starting to replace some older identification cards.

Biometric computer peripherals designed for individual users have been available since the late 1990s, but they're just starting to reach a mass market. "They've gotten smaller and smaller and more accurate over time," says Mike Thieme, a senior consultant at International Biometric Group, a testing lab and consulting firm based in New York. "Sony, Fujitsu and others have introduced products geared toward this market."

By 2005, IBG predicts that just about every new PC will come with some sort of biometric security device.

Fingerprints are especially popular for identification purposes because the unique sets of valleys, ridges, loops, whorls and arches on a person's clean fingertip can be converted to a digital pattern and matched accurately with a relatively inexpensive reader. The technology also is cheap to implement.

The terrorist attacks Sept. 11 also have made Americans more security-conscious, even if the events of that day had little to do with the security of home PCs.

Along a different track, with computer networks and Web sites increasingly protected by passwords, many users have a problem remembering them all.

"People may have seven to 10 different accounts at various sites. And lots of those people may have the same password for every site," says George Myers, senior director for product marketing at Digital Persona, which developed the first consumer-oriented fingerprint reader for home computer systems in 1998.

In business and government offices, many users simply write down all their passwords on a Post-It note and slap it on their computers, "which isn't secure at all," Myers says. "Some security systems have up to seven passwords, many of which change every 90 days. You just can't remember all of that stuff."

The more complicated security becomes, the tougher it becomes to get everyone to comply.

"Fingerprint sensors make this very easy," Myers says.

The latest version of Digital Persona's technology (www. digitalpersona.com) is the U.are.U Personal optical fingerprint reader, which launched the same day in October as Microsoft Windows XP. The latest version of Windows ships with the drivers for the device.

The reader attaches to the computer through a USB port. Once its software is activated, the reader can record and match a user's fingerprint and use it to prevent anyone except an authorized user from logging on to Windows.

The software also integrates with Windows XP's provision for different users with different desktops and applications.

"You can have two users on the machine and when each touches the sensor, Windows switches to that person's account," Myers says.

Moreover, when a user leaves his computer for a period of time, the screen can be locked until the person returns.

One of Digital Persona's main competitors is the DEFCON Authenticator from Targus Inc., launched earlier this year as a USB-connected fingerprint reader. It uses a silicon chipset reader made by Authentec Inc. that reads the live layer of skin below the epidermis where the ridges and valleys of the fingerprint originate. Its maker says this is more accurate than the optical scanners built into other products.

For laptop owners, Targus also offers a retractable scanner built into PC Card that slips into a slot on the side of the machine.

The DEFCON Authenticator, which sells for $120, also acts as a USB hub with two extra ports attached. Its Softex OmniPass software easily installs and walks you through an identification process that allows the user to set up a Windows login similar to the U.are.U Personal device.

Both U.are.U Personal and DEFCON Authenticator manage passwords for Web sites with Microsoft's Internet Explorer. U.are.U also works with America Online's Web browser. Neither, however, works with Netscape Navigator.

When a user first visits a password-protected Web site, he enters his username and password into the fingerprint reader's software. On return visits, he places his finger on the sensor, triggering software that automatically enters the correct user identifcation.

Neither device is designed to use fingerprint identification to filter Internet sites for children in a household using the same computer with other family members. But Targus says it has developing a method that could identify a child's fingerprint and deny access to lock out Internet use altogether.

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