Can Tokens And Smart Cards Boost Security?

Vendors promote new approaches, but it's unclear whether users will adopt them

George V. Hulme, Contributor

February 27, 2004

3 Min Read

When it comes to security, user names and passwords aren't getting the job done. And the threats are growing. The solution, security vendors say, is to make it more difficult to access business networks and applications, while still keeping procedures easy enough so users don't rise up in protest.

New approaches to more-secure access focus on smart cards and one-time password tokens, which add a second step to logging on to a network and gaining access to applications. Several vendors last week used the RSA Security Conference to introduce those kinds of products, which they say will improve business security. Smart cards are small devices that plug into a computer to help verify the identity of the user. Tokens can provide temporary one-time passwords that a user must key into a PC to gain access. These authentication devices usually are used in conjunction with passwords, but not always.

Security advances will provide a more seamless computing experience, Microsoft chairman Gates says.Photo by Lou Dematteis/EPA/AP

These advances will provide "a safer and more seamless" computing experience, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates said during his keynote speech at the conference.

RSA Security Inc., working with Microsoft, introduced tokens called SecurID for Microsoft Windows, which provide users with a temporary password every 60 seconds; the password is used with a secret personal-identification number to log on to Windows. SecurID is expected to be available later this year.

Also working with Microsoft is VeriSign Inc., which provides Internet authentication and directory services. It plans to offer a service to help companies manage the provisioning of authentication devices such as tokens and smart cards. The service will authenticate users over the Internet and support authentication devices from various vendors.

Some security vendors are adding new twists to USB tokens. Rainbow Technologies Inc. showed the RFiKey, a USB token with radio-frequency identification technology that can be used to access buildings as well as computer systems. Aladdin Knowledge Systems Inc. combined its eToken Pro USB smart card with an LCD-display for one-time passwords, so employees can use it to digitally sign documents and securely log on to their systems and applications.

The only way widespread adoption of strong authentication devices by businesses will take place is if the security industry moves away from proprietary management systems and agrees to an open architecture that smart-card and token manufacturers can design their gear to support, VeriSign chairman and CEO Stratton Sclavos says.

Security must improve, Gartner research director John Pescatore says. Businesses face increased threats from hackers using keystroke loggers to grab user names and passwords at Internet cafes and wireless hot-spots in airports and hotels, he says, and the user-name-password approach isn't effective enough to protect business systems, applications, and data. Says Pescatore, "It's an increasing problem, and corporations need to do something about it."

About the Author(s)

George V. Hulme


An award winning writer and journalist, for more than 20 years George Hulme has written about business, technology, and IT security topics. He currently freelances for a wide range of publications, and is security blogger at

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