Festival of ideas

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AUTHENTIC: Microsoft researcher Mariusz Jakubowski explains how the 'true one-way hash' helps create a unique identifier from a fingerprint.

Rick Steele

We didn't spy any jousting tournaments or funnel cakes at the Ronald Reagan Center, but the traveling Microsoft Research Tech Fest 2007 showed off some high-flying technologies at its Washington stop ' from a novel fingerprint authentication tool to a new way for rendering large-scale photography.

Like most of the technologies demonstrated, the new fingerpirnt authentication system is far enough along to show practical benefits but not quite ready for release. The technology is different from other biometric authentication tools in how it creates a unique identifier from the fingerprint. Using a secret key known only to the user, it overlays the fingerprint image with a pattern of crisscrossing lines.

'We compute the number of times that each line crosses the fingerprint curves,' said developer Mariusz Jakubowski. The resulting number of crosses is then compiled into a hash. When users subsequently log in, they enter their key and undergo a fingerprint read. The new hash generated from the reading is compared with the registered hash. If the two match, access is granted.

This approach adds an extra layer of security to the biometrics system. Someone breaking into the authentication system will not get any information that could be used later to fake a fingerprint. 'It is a true one-way hash,' he said.

The fingerprint hashing technology, like all the technologies at the fair, is being developed by the research arm of Microsoft. It may or may not make it into an actual product, depending on future needs of the company, said Rick Rashid, the Microsoft executive who leads the division. Microsoft Research hires smart folks and puts them to work on projects they find interesting. Some of these projects may end up to being essential to the company down the road. 'It's an investment in agility,' he said.

Even today, search tools are essential. Another technology at the Tech Fest, Web Assistant, advances search capabilities by more actively analyzing the context of information.

The core of the system is a technology that recognizes named entities and analyzes their frequency and relationship to other entities and concepts to reduce ambiguity. The system relies heavily on search-query logs and the million or so concepts abstracted on Wikipedia.

The system, for instance, makes it possible to recognize the word 'Columbia' in an article that frequently mentions NASA as most likely referring to the space shuttle and not the city, river or university of the same name. It then captures and uses that context in a search ' say, for the term 'heat shield' ' to deliver much more relevant results.

The explosive use of aerial and location photography online has spawned a new tool called HD View. The tool makes it possible to stitch together hundreds of individual photographs ' imagine a sweeping panorama of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park or the skyline of Seattle made up of a seamless mosaic of high-resolution close-ups ' and display them interactively online. The tool not only makes it possible to display extremely large images of 4 gigapixels or more via the Web but also adjusts and eliminates the optical warping common in 180-degree panoramic photos. The zoom power is impressive, but the ability to make large-scale images available over the Internet is even more impressive. Go to GCN.com and enter GCN.com/779 for a sample.

Other technologies demonstrated included podcast software that uses speech recognition to cut out the speaker's stutters and false starts and a faster way for mapping software to determine the best route between two locations.

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