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The Computer Corner


Biometric Authentication Not Quite Ready to Replace Your Dog’s Name Plus Your Address

By Charles Miller

The invitation that arrived in my email inbox read Beyond Passwords: Cybersecurity & Identity Trends, Unlocked. I initially dismissed it because Boston is a long way to travel for a one-day seminar, but some of the most respected security experts in the field were scheduled to participate, and the chance to meet them in person appealed to me. Rest assured, I am as desperate as anybody to find something, anything, better than passwords, so I booked a flight, packed a bag, and spent five hours on a plane.

Current authentication systems can be based on three things: something you know or something you have or both. A password is something you know and cannot be forced to hand over, for example, if the police want to snoop around in your smartphone. However, that protection goes once all it takes to unlock your phone is a fingerprint.

Before making the move away from passwords, we need to have answers to some tough questions—legal, technical, and practical. Getting rid of passwords is the goal, but we must think through the consequences of any replacement. There was a lot of that going on in Boston.

Biometrics, such as fingerprints, retinal scans, or DNA, are not the perfect answer. What do you do when some careless company loses its database, including your biometrics? It is not easy to change your fingers or to have your eyeballs surgically removed, as did Tom Cruise in the 2002 movie Minority Report.

Microsoft is pushing its “Windows Hello” system, which uses facial recognition as part of its authentication. A lot of proposed systems depend on having a smartphone constantly in hand. However, there is some backlash from users who are uncomfortable with biometrics and who are not cell phone addicts either.

Something everyone agrees on is that no authentication system that relies on some proprietary trade secret will ever succeed. Any authentication system must be open to public scrutiny. Companies that claim to have a perfect solution but refuse to say what it is are doomed to failure because hackers always discover the secret. Then the house of cards collapses.

Something everyone at the seminar agreed upon is that even if the absolute perfect replacement for passwords were to be invented today, it would still very likely take years for that solution to be widely adopted. Why? Because whatever better authentication method is adopted to replace passwords would necessarily involve changes to millions of websites, ATM machines, email and messaging systems, and so on. Nevertheless, there were some good ideas discussed in Boston.

So I left without the perfect answer to the password question, but not before making sure that the Union Oyster House is still in operation, as it has been since 1826. Their Boston baked beans are as delicious as ever.

Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant, a frequent visitor to San Miguel since 1981, and now practically a full-time resident. He may be contacted at 044 415 101 8528 or email FAQ8 (at)


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