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Former ICANN chair Esther Dyson invests in start-up

Dyson is backing a Washington, D.C.-based start-up that aims to make passwords on the Internet obsolete.

    Former ICANN chairwoman Esther Dyson is backing a Washington, D.C.-based start-up that aims to make passwords on the Internet obsolete.

    Real User, which has developed technology that replaces text passwords with a graphical system, said Thursday that after leaving the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), Dyson has taken an undisclosed stake in the company.

    Real User's authentication technology lets people access Web sites without the burden of passwords. The company selects five peoples' faces, or "passfaces," instead of a password for each of its customers. To log on, the customer then selects the images in the correct order from a series of grids similar to the famous "Brady Bunch" opener.

    "One great value of the Internet is its openness," Dyson said in a statement. "But that very openness means that individuals and companies want some reliable way of ascertaining someone's identity. Real User has an extraordinarily clever approach to this, based on what's in people's minds rather than what they can keep on a scrap of paper or in a file."

    The announcement comes as Web surfers grapple with an alphabet soup of usernames and passwords that are required to gain access to a growing number of services over the Internet. Several companies, including Real User, see an opportunity in simplifying the way Web surfers access secure sites they've registered with as well as the way they make financial transactions online.

    Microsoft, for example, has its Passport Internet-authentication service. German electronics maker Siemens in December unveiled a device, dubbed the ID Mouse, that uses biometrics to take people's fingerprints, which it uses to let them retrieve information from their PCs or laptops.

    As an investor and commentator, Dyson has focused on emerging technologies and business models as well as emerging markets and companies. Dyson's portfolio of active investments includes the Giga Information Group, GovWorks, TerraLink Technologies and Trustworks. She also serves as the chairwoman of EDventure Holdings.

    Dyson recently completed a two-year term as founding chairwoman of ICANN, the controversial organization charged with overseeing critical functions of the Internet.

    Dyson's "unique insight and understanding of the broader implications of emerging technologies will be invaluable as we establish the Real User authentication service as a fundamental component of Internet infrastructure," Real User Chief Executive Paul Barrett said in a statement.