If you have too many computer passwords to remember and are tired of having to come up with new ones every few months, you're not alone. The information age is turning out to be a security nightmare, for both the people who administer corporate networks and those who use them.
But big changes are on the way, and soon your body itself may be your password: your fingerprints, hands, face, the patterns in your retina's blood vessels, the veins in your hand, or maybe just the sound of your voice. Each of these features is unique to every individual, and computers can analyze them to distinguish one person from another. Such biometric technologies, as they're called, have actually been gestating in laboratories for years, but high costs have limited their use mainly to the military and spy agencies. Now, with the plummeting cost of computing power, biometrics is poised for widespread commercial use.
Giving the field a major boost has been PC maker Compaq, which came out with a $99 fingerprint reader for PCs early last year. At that price, companies can start thinking about biometrics for mass use, not just for ultra-secure data centers.
Other technologies are hitting the market as well. Miros offers TrueFacePC, a $59.95 program (available at http://www.miros.com) that identifies people by the shape of their faces. Working with most standard PC video cameras--which now sell for less than $100--the software takes just two seconds to analyze a face and authenticate its owner--assuming it has "seen" that person before. By always working with two views of each face, the program analyzes the depth of a person's facial features to prevent imposters from tricking it with a flat photograph. Another development: Biometric technology developer Keyware Technologies (http://www.keyware.com) and others offer software that verifies people's identities by analyzing their speech.
How fast biometric technology catches on depends on many factors, including cost, convenience and companies' need for improved security. And there are some difficult political issues, too: Will Americans submit to having digitized scans of their fingerprints, retinas, speech and even body odors stored in computers? Only time will tell.
John W. Verity has been writing about technology since the days when 1MB RAM cost $150,000 and was the size of a fridge. Send your questions to John at firstname.lastname@example.org