updated 2/24/2004 4:02:45 PM ET 2004-02-24T21:02:45

Office computers running the latest Windows operating systems could get a new degree of protection against snoops and intruders from a partnership announced Tuesday by Microsoft Corp. and RSA Security Inc.

Instead of only making users type in passwords to log on to a computer, users of the RSA "token" system also enter a random number that appears on their so-called SecureID, a key chain fob or plastic card they carry with them.

The number changes every minute, generated by an algorithm that also resides on a server inside a company's computing center. (MSNBC is a Microsoft - NBC joint venture.)

The new agreement, announced at RSA's annual security conference in San Francisco, would protect Windows-based computers with the token scheme, whether they are portable or attached to a corporate network.

Currently, signing onto Windows requires no more than typing a user name and password.

RSA's chief executive, Art Coviello, said the system offers a smart alternative because intruders can currently, with relative ease, steal or figure out passwords.

Also, the companies noted that because the RSA system logs each attempt someone makes to use a computer or a corporate network, it can help companies comply with new government regulations surrounding the privacy of health care records and other personal data.

Bedford, Mass.-based RSA, which says it serves 14,000 companies, said it expects the Windows-locking tokens to become available in the third quarter.

The tokens would work only on personal computers running Windows 2000 or Windows XP or on servers running Windows Server 2003.

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