Let Your Fingerprints Do the Talking

By Bob Ryan | Posted December 28, 2004

Computer passwords provide measure of security only as long as they aren't lost, stolen, forgotten, or hacked. Identifying authorized users for your personal or business computers adds a stronger level of security, and the COMBO-Mini from Silex Technology does just that in the form of a fingerprint scanner for Windows-based computers.

The COMBO-Mini — a $179 device that fits easily on a keychain — connects to PCs through the USB port. In order to log onto a system using the COMBO-Mini, you place your finger onto the scanner, which compares the minutiae of your fingerprint with a stored template. You gain access to the computer only if your fingerprint matches.

The big difference between the Combo-Mini and other biometric security systems I've used is that it includes a user identity module (UIM), a variant of the SIM (subscriber identity module) cards used, for example, in pre-paid cell phones. The UIM provides added security in a couple of different ways.

For example, no one without a UIM can even attempt to use the fingerprint scanner: Without a UIM inserted into the COMBO-Mini, the prompt telling you to place your finger on the scanner never comes up. Also, your fingerprint data is encrypted on your UIM, not on the computer system. Thus, you don't have to scan your fingerprint on every computer system you access. Finally, you need to know the PIN of your UIM in order to access the fingerprint scanner.

Software Setup
Installing the COMBO-Mini is easy, though it must be installed into a local administrator account. (A network account with administrative privileges on the local machine isn't sufficient.)

Once installed, the software walks you through registering at least two of your fingers (one on each hand, in case you should injure one finger you can still gain access) by scanning them. For basic computer security, that's all you need do.

SX-Logon is the primary component of the SX-Biometrics Suite. It ties into the Windows graphical identification and authorization (GINA) system so that the fingerprint scan ID can either replace or supplement the Windows password authentication.

When used in place of password authentication, the software logs onto the Windows account (either local machine or domain) that matches the owner of the UIM card inserted into the reader. When used in conjunction with password authentication, the software checks the UIM to determine whether the person should have access to the computer; if so, it permits the person to log onto any account (again local or domain) on the computer.

The software suite also includes a Screen Saver Lock, which lets you use the fingerprint scanner to unlock your computer. In addition, Screen Saver Lock automatically activates whenever you unplug the COMBO-Mini from the computer.


The Combo-Mini
It's Elementary -- The Combo-Mini fingerprint scanner protects desktops, laptops and data from unauthorized access.

More Than Password Protection
The software suite's other major components focus on password management and access to resources. SX-Pass lets you use the fingerprint scanner in place of a username and password for access to secure Web sites or any resource that requires a username and password.

I found this most convenient for securely managing my multiple online banking accounts and for remembering the multitude of Web site accounts I've accumulated. SX-Pass is a lot more secure than having a cookie remember my password.

While SX-Login is an excellent security tool, it isn't terribly flexible; you either give access to a computer or you deny it. For fine-tuned security, you use SX-Lock.

Like many SMB owners, you might store your personal financial information your computer at home, and you'd prefer your kids didn't have access to it. With SX-Lock, you can require fingerprint identification before someone can access particular folders or files. In addition, you can require fingerprint identification before someone can launch particular applications. SX-Lock is also ideal for offices large and small where several users share a single computer. You can give a person access to just the applications and data that she is authorized to see.

Scaling Protection
The COMBO-Mini is one of a series of biometric security devices from Silex. Others include the FIC-200, a PC Card-based scanner for laptops; the FUS-200N, a USB-based scanner for laptops and desktops; and the MUSB200-COMBO, which uses a SmartCard to store fingerprint data. All use the same SX-Biometric Suite software as the COMBO-Mini.

The FIC-200 or FUS-200N are the best bets for individuals; they are quick to set up and easy to use. For larger offices and organizations, it may make sense to invest in one of the COMBO devices, where you're more likely to need the flexibility and added security provided by the a SmartCard or UIM. In addition, Silex has recently partnered with Sig-Tec to integrate its fingerprint scanning products with Sig-Tec's network authentication software. The result is a system that centrally manages users and permissions.

Bob Ryan works in IT in higher education. He has been writing about technology for over 20 years, including editorial stints at inCider, BYTE, and FamilyPC.

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