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December 2011

Alternatives to passwords: Replacing the ubiquitous authenticator

The joke voted the funniest at the Edinburgh Fringe this year was about an unlikely subject: “I needed a password eight characters long so I picked Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.” Funny or not, the fact that it made so many people laugh just shows how much passwords -- and the challenges they pose -- have become part of our mainstream 21st century existence. Passwords have been a problem since the dawn of computing. They tend to be either so complex that no one can remember them, or so obvious that anyone could guess them. And the problem is getting even tougher. Anyone who has an encrypted laptop, conducts online banking or online shopping, and uses social networking sites is likely to have dozens of passwords to remember: far too many for one human mind to retain. Some users choose to write their passwords down on paper and keep them in their desk drawers or (even worse) stick the paper to their computer screens. Others take the line of least resistance and use the same password for multiple accounts. Either route is risky....

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