Swipe and type

4 min read

To take the headache out of trying to remember umpteen computer passwords, a US company has developed a fingerprint swipe device that does the thinking for you. Julia Pierce reports.

Each person carries the passwords to an estimated average of 20 computer functions and websites around in their head — so it is no wonder they frequently forget them.

One solution would be to use the same password for everything, from contacting your bank to logging on at work, but this isn’t exactly secure. But the alternative, multiple passwords and user names, can be a minefield.

At home, should you forget one, it is all very well to email the website in question for a reminder then wait for an answer. But at work the problem is more than just an annoying inconvenience. Over time it can have a serious economic impact in terms of lost working hours and tying up the IT department’s time.

In an attempt to overcome these problems, biometric fingerprint security specialist Californian company UPEK has come up with an answer — replacing this legion of passwords with the Eikon, a plug-and-play fingerprint scanner that is ergonomically designed to make sure users swipe their fingerprint accurately almost every time.

So impressive is the device that at this year’s International CES consumer innovation show in Las Vegas, it was awarded a Best of Innovations Design and Engineering award in the biometrics category.

The idea behind the Eikon is that it can be used for total password replacement in both home PCs and for company network security. This includes secure mobile transactions, protection of portable data, and even identity verification for government and military applications, as well as physical access control.

This means company IT departments can offer employees an easy-to-use way to authenticate on to networks and applications both in the office and remotely. This eliminates the burden of multiple passwords and benefits companies by offering a stronger level of security and lower help desk costs.

By using the software bundled with the Eikon, companies requiring high levels of security can implement hard authentication and digital signatures. For home PC users the device means the end of password reminder notes that are meant to protect private sites and sensitive data, but which can provide fraudsters with clues that could allow them access to sensitive or valuable data.

‘We determined the need for this type of design talking to both our PC customers and consumers,’ said UPEK’s director of marketing Ron May. ‘Our PC customers were interested in us developing a simple yet elegant USB reader that could be installed in older desktop and laptop systems to provide the same level of security and convenience being afforded to newer models with an integrated fingerprint reader.’

The plug-and-play Eikon is ergonomically designed to ensure users swipe their fingerprint accurately almost every time

Based in Emeryville in the San Francisco Bay area, UPEK’s customers include IBM and Cogent Systems. The company’s products and software can be found in four of the top five laptop brands including Dell, and Toshiba, as well as in portable storage products from SanDisk, LaCie and others.

According to May, the Eikon was developed to best meet the needs of a new generation of security-savvy consumers, together with the growing demands of businesses customers intently focused on protecting access to digital networks and on-line environments where security is critical.

‘The reader can be used with almost any website that offers user name and password login protection,’ said May.

However, as well as the technology within it, it is the design of the Eikon that has attracted much attention, particularly its simplicity and ease of use. The device was created by UPEK in conjunction with Lunar Design Studios, which is also responsible for the design of products including OralB’s CrossAction toothbrush — a product whose performance and design has been credited with giving the company an extra five per cent of the US market.

‘This is the first product we designed with Lunar,’ said May. ‘On a short-list of three agencies. Lunar came up with the design that best met our cost, brand and experiential requirements for our ultimate end users.’

The Eikon is made from injection moulded high-impact styrene. A protective coating guards the silicon sensor from chemical and environmental elements as well as electrostatic discharge, to improve the device’s overall robustness.

‘UPEK wanted materials that could withstand a lot of movement on the reader’s surface, with the many thousands of finger swipes it will face over its life,’ explained Lunar’s design director Jeff Salazar.

According to UPEK, previous readers tended to be bulky, uninteresting to look at, and not at all intuitive in their use. By contrast, the Eikon sports a sleek, ergonomic design.

‘A lot of thinking went into the design of the reader’s shape,’ said Salazar. ‘We wanted something that was very intuitive to the user and provided some assistance with the swiping process — hence the gentle curve shape of the surface to help the fingerprint stay flush on the reader as it was being pulled towards the user.

‘We added the edge reliefs in the surface to act as finger guides, and the “landing lights” dot pattern reinforces the direction as users moves their finger. Additionally, the bottom surface of the Eikon is rubberised to prevent it from skidding across any surface, and so that it sits firmly on a desktop.’

All of this adds up to create an almost idiot-proof degree of usability, minimising the chance that the user might have to repeat the motion. It also looks good and is simple to install, something that is vital for a product designed for home use.

‘It is quite simple. by installing the software and then plugging the Eikon into a USB port users can begin operating can begin,’ said May. ‘Installation of the device takes seconds and the software just a couple of minutes.’

Once in place, the device’s smart sensing technology is always ready to authenticate users with one swipe, without requiring software activation to wake up the sensor. This one-touch wake-up feature also means the device has a longer battery life.

Operation could not be simpler. ‘The blue LED logo on the front of the Eikon lights up to indicate that it’s plugged in,’ said Salazar . ‘It blinks when the user correctly swipes a finger and authentication process begins.’

Once the swipe has been carried out successfully, this is confirmed by a pop-up dialogue box on the desktop. When the user is logging into a secure website, once a successful fingerprint swipe has been made, both user name and password are automatically generated from the password bank.

It seems almost too simple to be true, but May says the system is so secure that it has been adopted by online payment firms, including America’s Pay By Touch, which offers its customers the product for use in making secure online transactions at home.

At present, the device only operates with PCs, but UPEK is working towards bringing an Apple Mac-compatible version to market.

Given that every computing function, from logon to email, web access and changing the settings preferences of a device is increasingly demanding secure access only, few would argue that a device that can make the process simpler is long overdue.