Are Biometrics the most Important Portable Feature?
As we carry more devices around with us, smartphones, tablets, netbooks, ultraportables, than ever before and now I'm wrondering if biometrics are fast becoming the must-have addition for mobile computing in the 21st century. I have a variety of mobile devices myself and have tested a great many more in the last year. Of these, only two have included what I would call proper biometrics, in that they have had a TPM (Trusted Platform Module) chip on the motherbard. These being my own laptop, I was never going to get a laptop without one, and a Samsung Series 9 Ultraportable laptop that I was sent recently for a Microsoft event.
Of the rest, I'm currently testing an Acer laptop that has a fingerprint scanner but no TPM chip, and a friend has recently bought a low-cost Lenovo laptop that includes the same and has the same ommission. Neither of my tablets have any kind of TPM and neither does my smartphone or any other smartphone or tablet that I've tested.
A TPM chip is one that stores encryption keys that allow you to securely encrypt the contents of the full hard disk or SSD in the machine. The TPM chip works in conjunction with operating system solutions, most well known being Bitlocker in Windows Vista and Windows 7, to unlock those drives on a passcode, use of a physical hardware key, contactless smartcard or automatically on log-in. They can prevent that data from ever beaing read if the operating system is reinstalled or if the hard disk is physically removed, as the encryption key is tied to the TPM chip, which is physically undetachable from its host motherboard.
On my own laptop I use Bitlocker to encrypt all my files and data and, while it's far from perfact still, it gives me the peace of mind I need that coupled with a very strong 10+ digit Windows password, nobody but me can ever gain access to my files.
The downside of facilities such as Bitlocker is they're only currently supported in the Enterprise and Ultimate editions of Windows, a problem I sincerely hope Microsoft will rectify with Windows 8, as I've only once been sent a laptop with Windows 7 Ultimate on it, and that was the afore-mentioned Acer that didn't have a TPM chip anyway.
Of the laptops that include fingerprint readers, I can assure you these things are pretty useless and people soon stop using them. Also what's the point of just having secure access to Windows when it's still simple to pop the hard disk out and plug it into another machine.
The situation with tablets is different, most of the time anyway, with bespoke flash storage modules that can't be plugged into another computer and where the password can only be bypassed by flashing the machine. With Windows 8 tablets coming next year this advantage may quickly disappear though in favour of more traditional mini-SSDs with larger capacities on board.
My argument is that, certainly on laptops, ultraportables and netbooks, but also and perhaps to a slightly lesser extent, tablets, smartphones and even desktops, TPM chips should now be everywhere and encryption should be simple and intuitive if not completely automatic and seamless (as it is on some new high-end hard disks). The amount of data we all have and carry around with us now is incredibly valuable, not just to us but also to others. With the prices of TPM chips at an all-time low, I really can't see why we're not seeing ubiquity here in the way they are implemented.
The software solutions will also need to drastically improve to make them much easier to understand and use. We can't still be in a position a year from now though where TPM chips are still only found on high-end business laptops costing more than $1,000.Advertisement