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At Your Fingertips

An introduction to biometrics

An introduction to biometrics
Illustration by Ken Edmondson

You may be hearing a lot about biometric authentication lately. Are you clear on what it is? Are any IT shops using it for enterprise-level applications? And why would a CIO or IT director consider it?

In a time when security is sacred and companies can be held liable for breaches, biometrics offers promise to solve access-protection issues. Let’s examine some biometrics basics so you can better understand the technology and how it could improve your organization.

Defining Authentication

According to Dictionary.com, to authenticate is “to establish as genuine.” As it relates to IT, authentication is performed to prove a claim of identity, for example: “I have the right to be represented by user ID 1234 on this system.” This claim is made whenever a user ID is provided to a system to determine the user ID under which a job or request will be executed or to make an access-control decision.

You can authenticate a claim of identity three ways:

  1. Something you know
  2. Something you have
  3. Something you are

The most common form is something you know (e.g., passwords or phrases). Assuming only the computer system and you know your password (a computer system “knows” your password by having it, or a transformation of it, stored on the system associated with your user ID), then providing that password to the system is proof that you have the right to be represented by the user ID you provided.

The next most common form of authentication is something you have (e.g., tokens or smart cards). This method rests on being able to prove that you have something in your possession nobody else could have. A key fob is an example. It generates a token that the computer system can verify as having been generated by the fob in your possession.

The something-you-are method is also called biometric authentication. The International Standards Organization defines biometric authentication as “the automated recognition of individuals based on their behavioral and/or biological characteristics.”

“While biometric authentication includes upfront costs for readers and middleware, the cost over time will usually be significantly less than that of managing passwords.”

Patrick Botz is the principal consultant and founder of Botz & Associates Inc., architect of the SSO stat! service and former head of the IBM Lab Services Security Consulting practice. He can be reached via www.botzandassociates.com.

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At Your Fingertips

An introduction to biometrics

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