Ron Miller: When will we start taking security seriously?

A few weeks ago, I was happy to hear that Target CIO Beth Jacobs had resigned. This wasn't only because falling on her sword was the right thing to do after her company's massive data breach. The fact that just days earlier I had realized that I was caught up in this mess had something to do with it.

My credit card was used several dozen times at a Mumbai shopping site, and I am convinced that it was compromised in the Target breach. But why didn't my credit card issuer's security algorithms pick up this obvious anomaly? Because I am a frequent traveler, I was told, the charges didn't seem out of the ordinary.

Really? Forty purchases from the same online shopping site didn't seem just a bit suspicious -- even though, in all my travels, I've never been to India?

All of this has been smoothed over. Jacobs is out, I have a new card, and the bank will absorb all those bad charges. Still, I can't help but wonder whether there isn't a better way to do security.

As it turns out, I did do some foreign travel around the time that I discovered those Indian charges. I went to Barcelona for the Mobile World Congress. And while I was there, I peppered Gary Davis, a vice president in consumer global marketing at McAfee, with questions about the state of Internet security. He told me we should be seeing some real improvements shortly.

Today, most of us protect our accounts with a simple password. Many of those passwords are laughably easy to crack, as the list of last year's 25 worst passwords illustrates. Some sites try to remedy that by forcing users to create ridiculously complex passwords, but that just causes users to write the passwords down and leave them where anyone can see them.

And password complexity is a moot point when a database gets hacked and passwords are among the prizes. The same is true if someone installs a keystroke logger on your machine.

So how do we improve security? There are a lot of things we can do, Davis told me. For starters, he said, companies over the next five years are going to get better at detecting behavioral anomalies by building more detailed security profiles based on typical behaviors.

That could help, but making devices themselves more secure would help more. For too long, we've had nothing but password protection on mobile devices. Apple's and Samsung's moves to let you unlock your phone with a fingerprint are feints in the right direction, but not enough. How about a combination of face and voice recognition? Davis said those two things together would make devices very difficult to hack. And we have most of what we need to implement it. Nearly everyone today carries a phone equipped with a microphone and a camera. We just need some cheap recognition software to complete the picture.

We have other unique identifiers we can leverage, he noted, such as our retinas, our heartbeats and even the cadence of our typing. We already have the technology to wrangle all of those.

What's holding us back? It's clear that our credit cards, our personal devices and our networks are porous to anyone with a modicum of technological savvy. What's going to have to happen before we see that we must set the smartest minds to the task of coming up with newer, safer and less complicated security methods? For once, let's not wait for the worst.

Ron Miller is a freelance technology journalist and blogger. He is an editor at Fierce-ContentManagement and a contributing editor at EContent Magazine.

Read more about security in Computerworld's Security Topic Center.

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