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Comdex: With biometrics, you're the password

LAS VEGAS, Nevada (IDG) -- In early September, a laptop believed to contain confidential company information belonging to Qualcomm Chairman Irwin Jacobs was stolen at a conference. The incident provoked a fair amount of fear and security-measure-tightening in corporate boardrooms. However, if Jacobs had been using any one of a number of biometric products on display here at the Comdex trade show, he, and Qualcomm's investors, would have had a lot less to fear.

Biometrics is a type of technology that uses the unique biological information that we each possess, such as iris patterns, fingerprints and voices, to control access to services and information. Biometrics is seen by many as an especially strong security measure because biological information is unique and particularly difficult to replicate.

One technology that might have been of use to Jacobs is the PC Card fingerprint scanner from Identix. The $179 device, which Identix claims is the first of its type and is available now, was shown in a Compaq Computer notebook and pops out from the PC card like the jack from a modem card. Identix makes a number of fingerprint-scanning hardware and software devices.

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An IT representative from a large U.S. insurance company who asked not to be identified said he is interested in the Identix device because it is one of the first biometrics products that his workers can take on the road when they travel. Biometrics devices are becoming popular in the insurance and financial industries because their price has come down sufficiently to make it practical, he said.

While biometrics may be gaining popularity in some sectors, it has yet to catch on widely. That is changing, though, according to Iridian Technologies spokesperson Amy Whilldin.

"Identity verification is now desirable, but it's going to become absolutely necessary," she said.

And when identity verification becomes so indispensable, Iridian plans to be ready to take advantage of that opportunity. The company offers a range of biometric products based on iris scanning. The eight-year-old privately-held Iridian recently received $33 million in investments led by General Electric, and numbers Hewlett-Packard, British Telecommunications, Lockheed Martin, and the U.S. Department of Treasury among its customers.

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Iridian uses a 512-byte code to verify the identity of anyone seeking access to restricted areas and its technology has never allowed access to an unauthorized person, according to the company.

Iris scans and fingerprint readers, however, are not the only authentication options in evidence at Comdex. Veritel of America is one of a number of vendors demonstrating voice authentication technologies.

The Chicago-based company sells both client and server versions of its VoiceCheck software to companies who then implement their own systems. The server, which currently runs on Windows 2000 Advanced Server, and is being ported to Linux and Unix operating systems, costs $4,995 plus a variable license fee of $1 per 1,000 users (more for fewer users, etc.) The server enables voice checks over telephones, PDAs (personal digital assistants) and the Internet and is used by companies such as BP Amoco and Electronic Data Systems.

Be it voice, iris or fingerprint, though, biometrics raise privacy concerns among some users. After all, "it's not just gatekeeping, it's identity," according to John Prendergast, the director of product management at Veritel.

Iridian Chief Executive Officer and President William Voltman agrees. "Biometrics, in general, suggests privacy issues. The privacy issue is a breach of data, of the self, that you haven't authorized," he said. "We are advocates of privacy, (because) we require your cooperation" to succeed.

Though Voltman believes that privacy issues are crucial, he does point out that because most authentication is done by their customers, rather than Iridian itself, the company has little control over the issue. Though he says that "we can't let that (trust) be broken," he also notes that users will have to trust the companies that they provide information to.

That this issue is likely not to be a large one for most users is underscored by the recent investments in biometrics made by major companies such as Motorola, General Electric and Polaroid. cited by Voltman.

"The biometrics market is emerging. The whole space will (consolidate and grow)," he said.

And if it does, scanning our eyes or speaking to ATMs may move out of the realm of science fiction and into our daily lives.

Japanese dentist develops e-tooth
September 15, 2000
Review: U-Match mouse make biometrics easy
August 22, 2000
Trading PINs for body parts
August 18, 2000
Iris scans take off at airports
July 19, 2000
Are days of the password numbered?
June 29, 2000

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Iridian Technologies
Comdex Fall 2000

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