Mobile security: A mother lode of new tools

You may know your smartphone, but pretty soon the question will be: How well does your smartphone know you?

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"We did not see any obvious answers, but there were huge positives with wearables," Alikhani adds. If device access is controlled via a wearable system, he says,"the possibility of being hacked is nil" -- if someone steals a phone, "they get nothing." Methods that involve the user responding to incoming messages were No. 2, but that approach is mostly used on desktops, Alikhani says. Biometric systems were third, he adds.

Alan Goode, head of Goode Intelligence, a London-based research firm, says that the leading example of a wearable authentication device for the mobile market appears to be the Nymi, a $79 wristband developed by Toronto-based Bionym.

As long as the person wears it, the Nymi knows who the wearer is, says Bionym CEO Karl Martin. The device communicates with the user's smartphone via Bluetooth, and it identifies the user by analyzing his cardiac rhythm, which takes about four seconds. Every time the user puts the bracelet back on, it re-authenticates with an accuracy that Martin would only say is somewhat better than fingerprinting.

"There is a constant battle between convenience and security, but this approach offers both," Martin says. Meanwhile, he claims, "we provide persistent identity, while other forms of authentication establish trust only at a single point in time."

The Biometrics Rush

Noting that "it's difficult to enter a long password into a mobile phone," Goode says biometric ID systems "are considered more applicable to mobile devices." Biometric tools typically take a one-time reading of a physical characteristic of the user to establish his identity.

"Fingerprint security is now the preferred biometric in the [mobile] market," says Art Stewart, vice president of the biometric products division of sensor manufacturer Synaptics. He says fingerprinting started to gain popularity last fall with the introduction of Apple's iPhone 5s, which has a fingerprint reader.

Apple acquired its fingerprint sensor technology through its $356 million purchase of AuthenTec in 2012, Stewart says. In response, Synaptics last year acquired sensor maker Validity for $255 million, he adds.

Stewart says it will be a challenge to meet the anticipated demand for fingerprint sensors. Apple's move "drove demand through the roof," he says, and all phone and tablet makers now have a "very high interest" in fingerprint technology.

As for the accuracy of fingerprint sensors, Stewart says the false acceptance rate -- the chance that the system could let someone other than the owner use a device -- is typically 1 in 50,000, or 0.002%, while the false rejection rate -- the chance that an access attempt by the legitimate owner would be denied -- is at around 2%, or 1,000 in 50,000.

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