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Perimeter

9/16/2011
05:26 PM
Rob Enderle
Rob Enderle
Commentary
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Intel Demonstrates Potential Password-Killers

Intel presented two possible ways it plans to make passwords obsolete

I've never been a fan of passwords. For some time we have known that trivial passwords can be remembered but are easily compromised, and folks who write down complex passwords make them easy to find and copy. In fact, way back in the 1980s while I was working security audits in IBM, we’d regularly argue that passwords were largely an ineffective way to secure anything that was truly sensitive -- and that was long before the Internet.

Well, Intel might have come up with something that is on the cusp of eliminating passwords and making those of us who buy the next generation of PCs and tablets far more secure.

We all carry cell phones, and an increasing number of us carry smartphones, so why don't we use a cell phone as a second factor to validate we are who we say we are? At its recent developer conference, this was actually a compelling demonstration by Intel and could be done with an app on a smartphone, a unique text message generating a one-time key, or even a clickable (on the cell phone) message that validated the person who was logging in also had the cell phone tied with the account.

With that one move, the user's password could be the number one or "password," and it would be far more secure than the cryptic mess we advise users to have today. But Intel didn't stop there: It showcased a BIOS-based technology that would allow a Web page to bypass the buffer and send an image directly to the graphics system on a registered PC. The demonstration entailed the use of a randomized virtual keypad where a PIN number would be entered. Anyone cloning the screen would only see a black box, and while he might see the cursor, he would have no idea what the cursor was pointing at and couldn’t repeat the PIN. This pretty much eliminates buffer attacks as a way to get access to this class of identification information.

Now if the PIN was also single-use and sent to the cell phone, the level of security that could be provided to the user would likely exceed significantly what most high security systems provide today and be consumer-friendly.

We’ve been trying -- largely unsuccessfully -- to kill off passwords for decades. Intel is one of the few firms with enough power to actually make this happen, and the technologies it showcased were compelling. Given how entrenched passwords are, I doubt we’ll see them go away before 2025, but Intel might make them redundant in two years. And that's good enough for me.

Rob Enderle is president and founder of The Enderle Group. Special to Dark Reading

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