Biometrics to bolster Windows security

MS breaks from a slow-moving consortium and will license tech that lets fingerprint or eye scanners work with operating systems.

Microsoft Corp. has agreed to include in future versions of its Windows operating system a type of software that uses "biometric" devices such as fingerprint or eye scanners to boost online security.

Microsoft (msft) Tuesday will announce it signed a licensing agreement with closely held I/O Software Inc. of Riverside, Calif., which has a proven application programming interface, or API, for biometrics technology. This essentially is a program that lets fingerprint or eye scanners communicate with operating systems.

Some see these scanners, which identify users based on unique individual characteristics, as eventually enhancing or replacing computer passwords. A crucial step in this process, say those in the industry, is the acceptance by both producers and users of an API that allows easy employment of the devices. The goal is to create a software infrastructure that would let users simply plug in biometric devices and start using them to log on.

Microsoft's move, which comes as the company is battling antitrust enforcers, may surprise some participants in a consortium of technology companies that have been working on a separate API. Yet that consensus-based effort has been slow, and many within the consortium privately said they welcome news of I/O's deal as something that will speed the development of a broader market for biometric devices.

The vision behind the development of the appliances encompasses both the business and consumer markets. In the case of fingerprint scanners, for example, users would place their thumb on a silicon wafer to identify themselves rather than -- or in addition to -- punch in a password or credit-card number. The device can ensure greater protection for those who use computers for everything from financial transactions to data mining.

Microsoft warned, however, that it will take time for all this to develop. Officials at the Redmond, Wash., software company wouldn't say exactly when this new software will be available on Windows. Corporate customers, whose acceptance is crucial to the development of a market for such devices, also warn that beyond a common API, other obstacles exist, including the need for large infrastructure investments to support biometric devices.

Several customers, meanwhile, are running their own tests of this technology, which has been used for decades by police, government agencies and the military. Microsoft's deal "validates" the use of biometrics technology as a security option, said Matthew Martin, vice president of security architecture at Chase Manhattan Corp. The huge New York bank is running an internal pilot program in which staff log on to computers using fingerprint scanners instead of passwords.