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Mapping veins as a human 'bar code'

Medical supply company markets infrared scan of veins as a replacement for fingerprinting or retinal scans. Photos: Scanning human veins

LOS ANGELES--In Memphis, Tenn., a small medical supply company called Luminetx has developed a new method of palm-reading that it hopes will rival fingerprinting or retinal scans as a way to perfectly identify individuals.

The technology is based on an infrared scan of the blood cells running through veins, which is then analyzed by a computer.

Luminetx originally developed the technique as a way to help doctors and nurses find veins in patients needing injections. But now, through a new division called Snowflake Technologies, the company is marketing it to banks, credit card companies and even homeland-security officials as a high-tech biometric identification tool.

Vein-scanning technology

"Our vein structures are completely different, especially when you look at the palm," said Luminetx Chief Executive Officer Jim Phillips, speaking at The Entertainment Gathering conference here Wednesday. "In a way, it's like looking at a bar code. We convert your veins to a bar code."

The drive for technology that can uniquely identify individuals has been given new urgency by the ongoing threat of terrorist attacks and the growing incidence of identity theft.

Basic biometric tools such as fingerprinting and retinal scans are now being widely installed at airports and other transit points. Biometrics experts in the United States and Europe are trying to develop standards that can help unify a fast-changing industry.

Some of the older tools have been found to be relatively easily bypassed, however. Researchers at Clarkson University have found that fingerprint scanners could be fooled with images lifted from Play-Doh, for example, or a model of a finger made with dental plaster.

Reproducing a three-dimensional model of a human vein system, complete with blood, could be more difficult, however.

Luminetx isn't the only group of researchers to pinpoint vein structure as a biometric breakthrough. Fujitsu is has already launched its own "Contactless Palm Vein Authentication" system and has sold more than 5,000 units in Japan.

To date, Luminetx has focused sales of its $25,000 machines to hospitals. The medical tool uses the infrared scanner to detect veins up to half an inch under the skin, analyzes the data in real time with a Pentium 4 computer, and then projects a digital image back onto the skin. The resulting ghostly greenish image looks a little like a cartoon X-ray, showing the precise locations of veins under the skin.

The company was granted a patent for the biometric applications of the technology last September.

Phillips said his company is still in the early stages of talking to financial and securities companies, and he would not talk about any negotiations taking place. He said he's sensitive to potential privacy concerns, but he believes the dangers of identity theft and other terrorism justify creating technology to help with the near-perfect identification of individuals.

"We're moving into a lot of different areas of society," Phillips said. "That's exciting, but a little bit frightening."