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Computer security can be tricky

Sunday February 19, 2012 7:21 AM

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The maintaining of passwords is something anyone who uses computers — which is just about
everyone — wrestles with on a daily basis. You have one password to open your computer, another to
do your banking online, another for some favorite online place where you shop and still another for
putting books on hold at the library.

Conventional computing wisdom tells us not to use our birthdays or children’s names, but I
suspect that plenty of us do anyway. Once when I called technical support at a particular company,
the tech-support guy gave me a temporary password of 123456 just to access my account. I’d change
it later, I said to myself, but that was a year ago, and the password still works just fine. I
should change it, I tell myself, and then I rationalize that if anyone wants access to that
particular account, they can have it.

When I shopped for a new computer a few months ago, I passed on the ones that required a
fingertips password. I’m a great fan of technology, so was naturally intrigued by the prospect. But
I worried about a computer that wanted my fingertips’ image to prove I was me.

First, there was something just creepy and Orwellian about it. On a more practical level,
however, I worried that I might not figure out how to place my fingers in just the right spot, in
just the right way, time after time, just to turn on my computer.

Now, researchers are looking at the possibility of using the human heartbeat as the secret key
to security. Electrocardiograms indicate that each human heartbeat is unique. Researchers at
National Chung Hsing University in Taichung, Taiwan, have devised a method through which the
computer can pick up through the palms of the hands whether the individual possesses the heartbeat
required to unlock a particular hard drive.

Again, this is a little strange, but for me, it has more appeal than the security method
Microsoft is reportedly experimenting with for release with Windows 8. The latter is a sort of “
name that picture” game in which the computer user would identify pictures of individuals known to
them in order to unlock a computer or application. No cumbersome numbers or letters is the idea,
but as one who wouldn’t see said pictures, I don’t mind a few cumbersome numbers and letters.

The requirement of physical eyesight for security isn’t new. For years now, an ongoing dilemma
for many blind and visually impaired computer users has been the captcha: the Completely Automated
Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart). That’s the name for that spot you sometimes
come to when registering for a particular web site where it says, “Type the characters you see

Screen-reading software that translates computerized text to synthesized speech or Braille can’t
translate those characters because they are images, not text. Many sites, in response to loads of
unhappy customer feedback, offer as an alternative an “audio captcha,” a set of spoken letters
which you type back to the site. In my experience, these are always so distorted that I can’t begin
to understand them for replication.

Captchas and pictures as gateways to technological security pose problems for some. Fingertips
certainly pose barriers for others. The heartbeat method sounds like the closest solution to
universal design in that everyone using a computer is going to have a heartbeat, but that, too,
will probably pose difficulties for some individuals whose hands are missing or damaged.

My own solution is for all of us to stretch our brains and just deal with those cumbersome
numbers and letters for unlocking our personal technological realms. Since newer, flashier methods
are inevitable, here’s hoping Microsoft, et al., remember the disability mantra that there is
always more than one way of accomplishing a task.

Deborah Kendrick is a Cincinnati writer and advocate for people with disabilities.

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