Computer passwords could soon be a thing of the past. Rebecca Armstrong gives the thumbs up to the latest security gadgets
Take a moment to think about how many passwords you use every day. If you bank online and log on to check your balance, you'll use one, then another for logging on to a work email, and perhaps one more for a Google or Yahoo! email account. Facebook junkies are prompted for a password, as is anyone who decides to download a song on iTunes, or do a bit of internet shopping.
A survey by the organisers of Info-security Europe, the information security industry trade fair, found that the average number of passwords used at work is five per person - so, with personal passwords factored in, most people use about 12 passwords every day.
Wouldn't life be easier if all we had to do to get on to email or pay for the weekly shopping was to place a thumb on a fingerprint scanner on your computer's keyboard? It would mean the end of having to memorise endless PIN numbers and passwords to keep our identities secure.
It may sound a bit Star Trek, but biometrics (personal identification using biological traits, such as retinal or iris scans, fingerprints or face recognition) are increasingly being applied to everyday tasks. The University of Warwick is leading the way in thumbprint scanning, and its latest breakthrough has brought biometrics closer to the realm of the everyday.
In Japan, face scanning is already used by one bank as an identification method at cashpoints. In Brazil, ID cards have fingerprint information encrypted in a barcode. At the Olympic Games in Athens, fingerprint scanning allowed athletes access to secure locations. The UK has an iris recognition system at immigration centres.
"Most of the public probably think they don't use biometrics at all," says Dr Tony Mansfield, head of biometrics at the National Physical Laboratory. "But many will have come across them at airports, even if they don't realise it." In the USA, all new arrivals are required to have their fingerprints taken, while iris scanning is used to speed up security at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport. Iris scanning is available on request at several airports in the UK, including all four Heathrow terminals. According to Infosecurity Europe, about 5 per cent of IT organisations already use some form of biometrics for security.
On a smaller scale, laptops fitted with fingerprint scanners have been available for five years, obviating the need to set up a personal password. Hewlett-Packard, Fujitsu and Toshiba have created models for security-conscious users, and Microsoft has developed a fingerprint reader that plugs into a computer's USB socket.
These devices may impress your friends and thwart your children when they're trying to get online, but they don't yet help you to pay for your groceries or check your bank account. There are a few hurdles in the way of the biometric revolution.
"When you're dealing with the great British public, technology has to be absolutely foolproof. It has to be reliable enough for banks and other organisation and it actually has to work," says David Porter, head of security and risk at the consultancy Detica. "If I'm behind someone at a busy ATM and they're mucking around with a finger on a fingerprint reader or trying to wipe somebody else's McDonald's off the screen, I'm going to start thinking, 'For God's sake, get a move on.'"
Tom Ilube, chief executive of the online identity protection service Garlik, explains that while using your iris or fingerprints to identify yourself sounds as if it would make life simpler, it would only do so if every bank, building society and online store used the technology. "If you're a consumer who interacts with 10 or 15 different organisations and they all decide they want to send you a device like a fingerprint scanner or iris scanner in order to log on, it soon gets ridiculous. …