Password for Life at the Tip of a Finger

If Compaq Computer Corp. has its way, Windows NT and intranet access may soon be available at the tip of a finger -- literally.

Compaq is reselling a biometric fingerprint reader system and promoting it as an alternative to memorized passwords. But don't throw away those crib sheets with passwords scribbled over them just yet.

Compaq's Fingerprint Identification Technology consists of system software and an attachable box, about the size of two sugar cubes, that can read and store fingerprints. Since its introduction a year ago, about 100,000 of these systems have been sold, according to a spokesperson at Identix Inc. (www.identix.com), which developed and licensed the system to Compaq.

Since the solution retails for $99 per workstation, pricing may finally drive the acceptance of biometric security in corporate environments, says Jackie Fenn, vice president and research director at GartnerGroup Inc. (www.gartner.com).

"Biometrics will be a preferred means of authenticating an individual," Fenn says. "It's much stronger and more convenient than passwords."

Other promising authentication technology, such as digital certificates and digital signatures, are based on passwords.

Compaq's Fingerprint Identification Technology provides IT administrators with management tools for implementing and deploying strict security policies over the network. This is expected to reduce the number of calls to the IT help desk, thereby lowering network administration costs. "Instead of carrying around 10 passwords, you use your finger, which is your password for life," says Oscar Pieper, president of Identicator Technology Inc., a division of Identix Inc. and creator of the product.

The solution scans then compares an individual's fingerprint with a digitized version of the fingerprint. The digitized template can be stored in memory, in a standalone biometric device, or in a smart card. When requesting access or authorization, the user identifies himself or herself with a PIN or coded identification card, and then places his or her finger on the platen of the security system.

The software that supports the reader, BioLogon 2.0, can be used with other security devices -- such as with a smart card device -- so that the user name, fingerprint and smart card would all be required for access. An enhanced version of the software, which began shipping in September, enables full integration with smart card devices, provides for the enrollment of up to eight fingers per user, and works on both stand-alone and networked systems.

GartnerGroup’s Fenn says rapid growth in the biometric market is more than two to three years away. Worldwide revenue from this technology may grow to $5 billion over the next five years, but "the precise timing of commercial biometric acceptance remains difficult to predict," says Marc Usem, equity analyst at Solomon Smith Barney (www.smithbarney.com).

Biometric security products are still a fairly new approach to identity verification and have only been used in limited applications to date. The lower price point of the Identix-Compaq solution may help drive acceptance, Usem adds.

Identix's devices are also being incorporated into the keyboard, the mouse, and other peripheral devices. Two peripheral device suppliers -- Cherry Electrical Products (www.cherrycorp.com) and Key Tronic Corp. (www.keytronic.com) -- are incorporating Identix's fingerprint readers into smart card readers and keyboards. "Having the technology bundled in equipment will be a big boost," Fenn says.

Biometrics technology can also identify individuals based on retinal blood vessel or iris patterns of the eye, hand geometry, voice, and facial structure. Fingerprint analysis, viewed as less intrusive and less cumbersome, has gained the most widespread acceptance.

Another provider in the market is Veridicom Inc. (www.veridicom.com), a Lucent Technologies spin-off and provider of silicon-based fingerprint authentication solutions. Veridicom has an interface for fingerprint authentication devices attached to PCs and PC servers.