Are Biometrics the most Important Portable Feature?

Mike Halsey MVP
Oct 23, 2011
Updated • Nov 28, 2012
Encryption, Security

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.

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.


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  1. gref said on October 27, 2011 at 12:22 pm

    Oh, I forgot- put a TC container on a external USB, and your files go
    anywhere you want them to, accessible from any computer, not just
    the one with a local TPM.

  2. gref said on October 27, 2011 at 12:19 pm

    Why not just use TrueCrypt? Completely transparent (containers mount as
    drives), accessible from any OS, not just Windows.

    1. Martin Brinkmann said on October 27, 2011 at 12:55 pm

      I agree. True Crypt containers are really nice on portable devices.

  3. Jupiter said on October 23, 2011 at 6:40 pm

    I have had to reinstall my Operating System various times because of various reasons. I am also dual-booting Windows 7 & Ubuntu 11.10. The reasons why encryption (Bitlocker + TPM for example) is not up in my list is because I fear in case I cannot start and access Windows 7 I would not be able to recover my files with a recovery CD, and I would not be able to access my partition with all my files from Ubuntu. That is my perception, If I am wrong or if there are workarounds to avoid these problems let me know.

    1. Mike Halsey said on October 23, 2011 at 8:57 pm

      @Jupiter When you set up Bitlocker you’ll be prompted to save your decryption key to a pen drive. Keep this safe (I also upload it to a safe place online as a backup too). When you need to reinstall Windows you’ll be promoted to insert the pen drive and it’ll auto unlock. That is if you use the System Image Backup built into WIndows.

      Alas Bitlocker doesn’t work with dual-boot systems still though :(

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