June 11 2010
Like many people, I suspect, I so seldom need to write by hand these days that I am inordinately impatient while doing it. Hence I dash off my signature so quickly that no two are similar and most look like the vital-signs trace of someone close to curtain-down. To me, my signatures look infantile but, to my children – at least when they were younger – they apparently seemed sophisticated. So often, as I slumped home from work, they would invite me to see their “new signatures” – usually a variation on my ridiculous dead man’s ECG theme.
I was fascinated, then, when I learned about the Bio-Pen, a new-to-Britain gadget that employs behavioural biometrics to determine and verify whether a signature is genuine, and thus provide a more robust method of identification – so important these days – than anything else in existence, be it stealable Pin numbers, fakeable fingerprints (crooks apparently use gelatine moulds), voice recognition (which recordings can supposedly fool) or retina scanners, which can, it is said, be hoaxed by a good photograph of the intended person’s eye.
A signature, claims Secure Signature Systems, distributor in Britain for the Bio-Pen, is far more secure because it is characterised not so much by the way it looks, which is easily faked, but by the way it’s written, which includes a dizzyingly complex and unique combination of pressure, motion and speed. Bio-Pen was developed in the US, where remote online learning has run into problems from students employing surrogates to take their exams. Its potential is enormous. I have no doubt many of you will think of corporate uses that even Bio-Pen’s maker hasn’t come up with.
Among the many ideas already in use, Bio-Pen can enable signature-only access to secure websites and ensure that remote workers signing in for duty are actually present. Visitors’ badges for secure premises can be signature-verified to ward off industrial espionage. And there is even a way of allowing signatures on PDF-ed letters to be verified (far too technical to go into here). Any company aiming to go paperless might well be interested in looking at this.
So bearing in mind that I can barely imitate my own signature, I was intrigued to see if Bio-Pen could verify my widely differing scrawls. The pen plugs into the USB port of a PC (it’s not compatible with Macs) loaded with Bio-Pen software, which you can train to recognise any number of signatures. The Bio-Pen comes with plastic and ballpoint tips, so can scrawl your name on any surface, or there’s a handheld electronic signature pad available for signers to write on a small screen.
Well, so long as I wasn’t just silly and put a modicum of effort into signing my name, the system worked. It was sometimes suspicious and requested a repeat, but seemed unfoolable. It could tell that quite different-looking signatures were mine, while another person even carefully tracing my lines got a firm “Computer says no”.