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The most common way to identify someone is through their physical appearance, but how do we identify someone sitting behind a computer screen or at the ATM? Tools for authentication are used to ensure that the person accessing the information is, indeed, who they present themselves to be.
Authentication can be accomplished by identifying someone through one or more of three factors: something they know, something they have, or something they are. For example, the most common form of authentication today is the user ID and password. In this case, the authentication is done by confirming something that the user knows (their ID and password). But this form of authentication is easy to compromise (see sidebar) and stronger forms of authentication are sometimes needed. Identifying someone only by something they have, such as a key or a card, can also be problematic. When that identifying token is lost or stolen, the identity can be easily stolen. The final factor, something you are, is much harder to compromise. This factor identifies a user through the use of a physical characteristic, such as an eye-scan or fingerprint. Identifying someone through their physical characteristics is called biometrics.
A more secure way to authenticate a user is to do multi-factor authentication. By combining two or more of the factors listed above, it becomes much more difficult for someone to misrepresent themselves. An example of this would be the use of an RSA SecurID token. The RSA device is something you have, and will generate a new access code every sixty seconds. To log in to an information resource using the RSA device, you combine something you know, a four-digit PIN, with the code generated by the device. The only way to properly authenticate is by both knowing the code and having the RSA device.