The lowdown on biometrics

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Show of hands

What is it? Biometrics is an authentication method based on some physical characteristic. This can be as obvious as a fingerprint pattern or as subtle as a measurement of some repetitive movement, such as how a person types a phrase or writes a signature.

Passwords are the bane of security departments'they must be easy to remember, yet long and complex enough that they can't be easily guessed, and they need to be changed often. Most people need to remember dozens of passwords in the course of a year and this leads to two outcomes: first, they forget the password and require help desk intervention, which is an expense and a security threat; second, they write it down.

Biometric authentication relies on something people can't forget.

Must-know info? Some biometric hardware is good, but some is virtually useless. It's vital to evaluate the various components in a real-world setting and not just take vendor claims at face value.

Remember to budget for a backup authentication method.

If using fingerprints, be certain to register multiple fingers'a paper cut can lock out a user.
A biometric authentication is, at best, only as secure as the enrollment database. This has led to the use of smart cards to store the enrollment data.

As with any new security feature, locking the front door won't be much help if someone leaves a back door open. There's no sense in creating a highly intrusive biometric security system if you haven't already secured every other part of the network, including the operating system.

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