CEBIT: USB tokens offer portable security

Looking for a convenient way to secure access to your laptop or data, without having to remember passwords? The answer could be...

Looking for a convenient way to secure access to your laptop or data, without having to remember passwords? The answer could be in the palm of your hand. Or maybe at the end of your key chain. 

That's the hope of companies offering security tokens: cheap devices about the size of a house key that plug into a USB (universal serial bus) port to verify a user's identity. A number of them are showcasing their versions of the tokens here at CeBIT.

The tokens, also known as dongles, are intended for individual laptop users, for employees accessing company networks, or for software makers seeking to prevent pirate use of their products.

The chief advantage USB tokens offer over smart-card-based network login systems is the lack of need for a card reader, said a spokesman for Aladdin Knowledge. That can save significant amounts of money, for example, for a company with multiple employees needing to access a VPN (virtual private network) from both home and work, he said.

Aladdin's eToken Pro, which has been on the market for about a year, retails for about $37 (£26) each. It has a built-in 1024-bit RSA Security processor and supports various security configurations, including the network logon system integrated in Microsoft's Windows 2000; Check Point Software Technologies and Cisco Systems. VPN security; and PKI (public key infrastructure) security systems from major suppliers including Entrust, RSA, and VeriSign.

Rainbow Technologies, also a major player in the security token market, was not at the fair, but it did introduce an item to its USB token line. The iKey for Windows 2000 allows laptop users running the operating system to secure the content on their machines, digitally sign e-mail, and use PKIs. A starter package including five tokens, cable, software and manuals costs about $280 (£197).

Some smaller entrants are at CeBIT, including German company TechnoData, which sells its Lockware USB tokens at prices ranging from €41 (£25) for fewer than 10, to €14 (£9) for 5,000 or more.

However, some users are not convinced about the virtues of USB tokens.

"I don't trust these dongles, because there are always cracks [software to hack keys]; you can download them," said Ralf Wolff-Boenisch, managing director of Kaiserwetter, a marketing and communications company.

"I've had driver problems, incompatibility, and, with the first couple of generations, a lot of crashes. It's a bit slow, too, because the system has to find the dongle. And if you lose the dongle, everything's lost."

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