Coop's Corner: Smart cards mean business

Who says smart cards are dumb ideas? When it comes to security, they may hold the key.

Bill Gates has made an altogether sensible pitch, urging hardware vendors to embrace smart cards. I don't know whether they will heed his call -- some will naturally question the Microsoft chairman's motives -- but they should.

Cyber safecracking isn't as easy as 1-2-3. But when it comes to overcoming security barriers, the likes of Kevin Mitnick and Richard Smith (let alone the still-undetermined author of the "Love" bug) can make monkeys of IT administrators around the globe.

Gaining access to a corporate network is only a password away -- and that feat is apparently not the equivalent of scaling the Matterhorn. So Gates used part of his Networld+Interop keynote speech to urge third parties to build smart cards into their systems. Considering that few corporations currently use smart cards, there's not a crying demand. At least not yet.

But developers are throwing a lot of stuff against the wall and waiting to see what sticks. I still have a Java ring that Sun distributed at its Java show a couple of years ago. This Captain Midnight secret decoder knockoff allowed conference goers to log on to any system in San Francisco's Moscone Center.

Whether the upshot is a ring or a card or a detachable belt buckle, the idea of carrying a portable ID may not be the ultimate answer. But until the world figures out a response to prevent security break-ins, it may be the best interim measure around.

After the events of the last week, folks in the computer industry are still speaking with separate voices about how to create a security platform that's not the equivalent of cyber-Swiss cheese. Oddly enough, there's a fair share of finger pointing going on in the aftermath of the Love bug outbreak. The natural-enough reaction of covering your posterior aside, the fact remains that security firms failed their big test as anti-virus sites got so swamped during the big crunch that they failed to respond. Even updated virus scanners were proved ineffective (Virus checkers detect what they already know -- which is that your computer is in a world of hurt.)

Are PR people congenital morons or is it something that just goes with the turf? A philosophical question better left for pondering some other time. Yet undeterred by the supposed lessons of the Love bug, they continue sending me e-pitches with attachments. I guess reading the news is not high on the priority list. Either that or some of my fans are trying to catch me napping.

And so the GOP is drafting an "e-contract with America." I can't really knock the Republicans for swearing fealty to the cyberverities of Mom, apple pie and the flag. The Demos came out with an equally treacly statement of principles (yes, the "E-Agenda") that restated the obvious. Then again, you shouldn't be shocked at the keen interest in the nation's tech constituency. There's lots of votes there. But even more, there's lots and lots of money. And the show is just getting started.

The organizers of the Demo conference have figured out the best way to keep company commercials to a minimum: They keep the sundry product demonstrators on a timer. Too bad they don't do the same thing at Comdex and the rest of the big shows where industry notables get up to give stem-winders. I actually thought Gates could have made more of an impact in his N&I keynote if he had deleted the transparent pitches for Windows 2000. But that's show biz in the trade show biz -- unfortunately.

XML got a big boost from Microsoft's Numero Uno, who also kept returning to the advantages of technical integration. It was a cute way of getting back to a more familiar message from Microsoft: that the right to innovate via integration is sacrosanct. Or at least should be.


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