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Published: Friday, 1/2/2004

One touch to perfect password

Are the password's days numbered?

“Yes” was my answer years ago in an article bubbling with enthusiasm over less-expensive “biometric authentication” technology that would quickly make passwords as outdated as 5.25-inch floppy diskettes. That's the use of fingerprints, scans of the retina in the eye, and other distinctive body features instead of regular passwords.

The handful of passwords and user IDs that I had to remember then has grown into dozens today. Like millions of other people, my reliance on access to those strings of numbers, letters, and characters also has increased.

People are using the Internet to pay credit card, utility, and other bills; manage banking and brokerage accounts; shop for all kinds of products; and much more. Forget a password, and you're locked out.

Managing user IDs and passwords has become a burden and risk of life in the information age life. How do you remember them?

Should you keep backup copies, and where? It better be in a secure place, because its grief galore if that information falls into the wrong hands.

You wouldn't believe how many people have a password sheet taped near their computer in open view; squirreled away on a scrap of paper in wallet or purse within a pickpocket's reach; stored in a computer file; or laying in a drawer.

Password storage is one popular use for personal digital assistants (PDAs) and PocketPCs - those small computing devices that fit into the palm of a hand. Mine are all stored in a PocketPC in a file named “Passwords.”

The device itself is password protected, with a strong password, so that the casual thief cannot access the data. “Strong” means a password that's tough to crack. One good starting point for instructions on creating a strong password is: www.microsoft.com/security/articles/password.asp.

I know seemingly techno-savvy people who store passwords and logons in PDAs and hand-held computers with no password protection, or weak ones — like their home address

One strong password may seem like the obvious answer. But what if it falls into the wrong hands?

Look at your thumb for the solution that got my attention years ago. It involves replacing passwords with fingerprints, fed into the computer via a stand-alone fingerprint authentication device or a small sensor pad built into computer keyboards.

The devices read and digitize the distinctive patters of swirls and whorls in an individual's fingerprint. The print data then becomes an almost unbreakable password.

Fingerprint authentication hardware and software has been around for years, but has gotten relatively little use for home and routine business computing. To check out the available hardware, ask at area stores or search the Internet with terms like “fingerprint authentication device” and “fingerprint keyboard.”

The technology, however, is pricey. It probably will stay that way until the computer industry ditches passwords and embraces fingerprint authentication technology, with fingerprint scanners standard gear on all new computers.

Online life would be a lot simpler and more enjoyable.

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