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Source: The Columbus Dispatch

Posted on February 20, 2012

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 here."

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.

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