Terrorist attacks, new XP OS renewing interest in biometrics

Microsoft Corp.'s new Windows XP operating system includes several security feature enhancements. But one of the most significant changes, coming amid a push for increased security, could mean the beginning of widespread use of biometric technology, according to experts.

Biometric technologies provide identity authentication through such things as fingerprints, iris scans, face geometry and voice scans. Biometrics provides a higher level of security and authentication because no two people are exactly alike. In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S., it has garnered renewed attention.

Most users until now viewed biometrics as costly and difficult to integrate with legacy applications. That's changing, however, and at least one company is using the mass appeal of Microsoft's new operating system, which will be officially launched today, to help broaden the appeal of biometrics.

Microsoft's support for Fast User Switching, which allows users to switch profiles without shutting down their applications or completely logging off a shared PC, has become the centerpiece of a native fingerprint biometric system from Redwood City, Calif.-based DigitalPersona Inc.

The company's U are U Personal fingerprint scanner system is fully integrated with Windows XP. The personal edition of the system follows the release of the U are U Online and Professional editions, which the company has sold to Los Angeles-based California Commerce Bank, The Coca Cola Co. in Atlanta and a host of medical services firms.

"Over the course of hundreds of years, signing a piece of paper has become part of our lifestyles," said DigitalPersona CEO Fabio Righi. "We are trying to accomplish the same thing with biometrics. Little by little, people will get used to it."

Corporate users are already getting used to biometrics.

For example, St. Vincent Hospital and Health Services in Indianapolis has rolled out a biometric authentication pilot project that is combining the practicality of single sign-on workstations with biometric authentication devices for roaming enterprise users.

As part of a 50-person pilot project in the hospital's oncology unit, St. Vincent plans to eventually roll out a fingerprint identification system from Bellevue, Wash.-based Saflink Corp. that works in conjunction with Computer Associates International Inc.'s eTrust single sign-on platform. Within two years, the hospital plans to support more than 5,000 users.

"Biometrics has become synonymous with single sign-on," said Bruce Peck, information security manager at St. Vincent. "We saw this as a way to raise the bar for security across the board."

The hospital environment is proving to be a robust proving ground for the combination of the two capabilities. And officials at the hospital and at the software firms said they are confident that if it can work there, it can work at any company. "The key thing is to get users on and off the workstations quickly. If it slows them down, it impacts patient care," said Peck.

Carlton Musmann, senior vice president at First Financial Credit Union in West Covina, Calif., said his bank's 70,000 customers are demanding more secure online banking capabilities. He added that the only cost-efficient technology capable enough is fingerprint biometrics. "We compared fingerprint technology to retinal scan, and the cost difference was significant," said Musmann. The bank now offers 10 Saflink-based fingerprint biometric kiosks throughout Northern California.

"You can do anything you can do through a clerk," he said. "Users don't need an ATM card, a wallet or anything."

The sticking point across most vertical industries has been the integration challenge posed by multiple legacy applications and the price of biometric hardware, said Walter Hamilton, vice president of business development at Saflink. However, both of those challenges have been solved with interoperable middleware and biometric devices that cost $100 or less, he said.

"Some have shied away from the integration challenge in the past," said Lloyd Tanaka, senior business manager for eTrust security products at CA. However, in light of the recent terrorist attacks and the push to improve security, "there's no resistance conceptually to what needs to be done," he said.

Biometrics "is really all about deploying security and convenience at the same time," said Righi.

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