Biometrics: Smaller and cheaper

Optical fingerprint scanners won't likely be commonplace in the 20th century office--but their smaller silicon counterparts just might crack the enterprise market.

The biometrics pavilion at Comdex was bleak--a barren black booth dominated by International Biometric Group (IBG), with little-known companies clustered around tiny input devices and laptops. While the hype over biometrics may have come and gone--with nary a splash--companies are slowly taking to the technology as it becomes more affordable.

The use of biometrics now seems inevitable, but there's a contentious hardware issue yet to be resolved: optical versus silicon.

While bigger names like Saflink still sell software for thousands of dollars (Saflink charges $100 per client for its product, but requires a $10,000 minimum implementation) start-ups are starting to make biometrics much more affordable.

Digital Persona's complete product, which includes a portable, keychain-sized optical fingerprint scanner and software, retails for only $149 per user, with no minimum cost. The software, which allows users to sign in remotely and set up permissions for shared access, is comparable to that from Saflink--which only announced shared permission and remote functions this week at Comdex.

"Prices are coming down--especially for scanners," said Jake Hong, an associate at IBG, a consulting firm that works with government and corporate clients.

So what's holding up adoption? Price and privacy concerns are still factors. But a new law requiring biometric identification could help push widespread adoption of the technology, says Richard Ouaknine, an account executive at IBG. By 2004, the United States will require that all foreign visitors from visa-waiver countries carry passports with a microchip holding biometric data. Even so, says Ouaknine, standards will still be a huge hurdle.

The optical vs. silicon conundrum
Optical fingerprint scanners have been around the longest, but some companies are favoring silicon chip-based devices, mostly for their smaller size. Silicon-based sensors are smaller, and can be more easily put on PDAs and cell phones.

"With optical scanners, the size limit is still there," said Hong.

Silcion-based scanners will also probably be cheaper at some point, he added, though both kinds are in the same $50 to $250 range now.

There's one main advantage optical has over silicon. The government has been using it for years, and has proven durable. "And you can't overlook the fact that the government likes optical," said Hong.

There is also some confusion about the benefits of either device when it comes to security breaches. It's been shown that fingerprint scanners can be fooled with a fake finger made of gelatin. The advantage of the silicon-based scanner is that it senses real flesh by reading moisture levels, whereas an optical scanner could be fooled more easily.

Whether or not that's actually an issue is debatable: "You would have to have the user already to get the print, and then build a mold--it's not likely," said Harvey Bondar, VP of marketing for Digital Persona.

As if that weren't enough to give the enterprise adopter pause, there are also software standards to be settled, and a third hardware technology to evaluate. No clear leader has emerged between the government standard, BioAPI, and the financial sector standard, ANSI X9.84. And ultra-sound scanners are also hitting the market. UltraScan in New York is one of the first developers, and it touts the ability of ultra-sound to get a clearer print by sending sonic waves through the dirt and grime that accumulate on our fingers.

Incidentally, Digital Persona's optical scanner couldn't read my finger. My Peter Pointer could be a one of the one-in-10,000 freak fingers with grooves too shallow for the scanner to read. Or maybe the ink splotches had something to do with it. And maybe companies should hold out for those ultra-sound scanners after all.

Do biometric scanners have a future in your company's security plans? TalkBack below or e-mail us.