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Smile... face recognition could replace passwords

Cyber security is at the heart of the research done at the Institute for the Protection and Security of the Citizen, which is part of the Joint Research Centre, the European Commission's in-house scientific service. © Shutterstock
Cyber security is at the heart of the research done at the Institute for the Protection and Security of the Citizen, which is part of the Joint Research Centre, the European Commission's in-house scientific service. © Shutterstock

Software that can read your fingerprint from a touch-screen phone and 3D face recognition could replace internet passwords and pin numbers in five years, according to an EU cyber security research expert.

‘Perhaps a camera in your smart phone will identify you by taking a picture,’ said Dr Stephan Lechner, Director of the Institute for the Protection and Security of the Citizen at the European Commission’s in-house scientific service, the Joint Research Centre. ‘The algorithms are there, the legal framework is not really fully there, but the technology is ready to go.’

He should know. From their base in northern Italy, Dr Lechner's cyber security research team is working out how to secure the internet as it will exist in five years’ time.

While people will be able to opt for old-style passwords and pin codes if they wish, they will also have the option to identify themselves online using high-tech sensors and clever software on their smart phones or portable devices.

‘You would choose, but this is more comfortable than having to key in the pin code every other day,’ he said. ‘There’s always a question, if you put a simple pin code, if you are really more secure, or more exposed.’

Every day, there are hundreds of thousands of online attacks, and their sophistication is growing, with hackers more and more targeting an individual or a specific corporation rather than just trawling the Internet looking for vulnerabilities.

Not only that, but people are increasingly at risk of being hacked as the world becomes ever more connected, with telecoms networks linked up to electricity grids and personal smart phones.

‘The algorithms are there, the legal framework is not really fully there, but the technology is ready to go.’

Dr Stephan Lechner, Director of the Institute for the Protection and Security of the Citizen, Joint Research Centre

In April, stock markets momentarily plummeted after hackers sent out a bogus Tweet from an Associated Press Twitter account saying that U.S. president Barack Obama had been injured in an explosion.

Attacks like this underline the increasing need for people to protect their identity online, as hackers will try to get passwords to access confidential data and critical systems.

Dr Lechner and his team are using their understanding of the threats that the Internet will face in five years’ time to try to encourage manufacturers to build in security at the start of their development process.

‘We're helping to better understand the mechanisms and the future threats,’ he said. ‘You do not add on security afterwards because usually it would not fit the design, would be very costly, would come too late and only cover a part of the needs.’

If security is properly integrated, then you would barely notice as your smart phone scans your fingerprint while you are writing an email, or takes a 3D photograph of you as you surf the Internet.

The EU is getting ready to launch Horizon 2020, its funding round running from 2014 until 2020, and one of its goals is to bring research to the market that will help protect citizens against cyber crime.

And in February this year, it launched its cyber security strategy to tackle the threat of cyber attacks and to foster international cooperation in cyberspace.

Stephan Lechner is Director of the Institute for the Protection and Security of the Citizen. © JRC Stephan Lechner is Director of the Institute for the Protection and Security of the Citizen. © JRC ‘There is a need to establish crisis communication lines and to enhance dialogues on cyber issues,’ the EU's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said at the launch of the strategy. ‘Trust and confidence should be improved not only between states, but also between the private and public sector.’

But, no matter how much research goes into making us safer online, there’s never going to be a silver bullet because the technology is always evolving. ‘Threats will be around as long as there are new technologies,’ said Dr Lechner. ‘They are just the downside of new technologies and we need to live with them.’

As with most things, the best defence against cyber crime is common sense. ‘Don't leave your wallet openly on the table and then be very surprised if it's gone,’ he remarks. ‘If you leave the door to your PC open, it might be the very same effect.’ 

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