Tech Industry

Fingerprint security on the PC

Who Vision next week will unveil its security technology that uses fingerprint sensors to safeguard corporate data.

Biometric start-up Who Vision Systems next week will unveil its security technology that uses fingerprint sensors to safeguard corporate data and limit access to specific individuals.

The company has a deal with Taiwan manufacturer MAG Group to embed 35 million fingerprint readers into computer monitors over the next four years, plus a partnership with security software vendor Entegrity to enable corporate networks to use Who Vision's TactileSense technology.

Who Vision also is working with Microsoft, Computer Associates, and certificate authority company Entrust to make the devices work with their enterprise software, Windows NT for Microsoft and Unicenter for CA.

Who Vision thinks its technology suits the consumer market as well--for home users that want to block certain Internet sites for children or limit access to a family's online bank accounts. It also is exploring opportunities to build its sensors into special-purpose information appliances for online services, home banking, or online brokerages.

"Companies are being forced to tell employees they have to use complicated, arbitrarily assigned passwords and to change them at regular intervals," said Alex Dickinson, Who Vision's chief executive. That means employees write down their passwords (a breach of security) or can share them with others.

"Using fingerprints gets rid of those issues," he added, noting that the most common call to corporate help desks involves lost or forgotten passwords. In the TactileSense system, a digital fingerprint replaces a password or personal identification number (PIN) to verify a user's identity, making it much more difficult for unauthorized users to get at information.

With a fingerprint sensor, a user simply puts their finger on the reader, which is about the size of a postage stamp and can be built into PC monitors, keyboards, smart-card readers--even, potentially, automated teller machines.

Who Vision's effort to popularize its fingerprint system when rivals have struggled relies heavily on the price of its hardware device--$25 today and perhaps as little as $10 in volume production. That compares to prices as high as $200 for some competitors.

A year ago, notes analyst Ira Machevsky of Giga Information Group, the breakthrough for biometrics--technologies that recognize human attributes such as voice, face, fingerprints, even body odors--was a $600 device from National Registry.

"In general, the problem is getting [biometric technologies] out into the infrastructure," Machevsky said. "All these manufactures have been talking about working with monitor vendors and keyboard vendors. I'm waiting to see the PC OEMs come out and offer them."

Fingerprint readers could complement smart cards, which are plastic cards similar to credit cards that contain a chip. But smart cards haven't caught on in the United States, although the enthusiasm for chip cards has been growing among security-conscious companies. A fingerprint sensor could replace a smart card PIN as a second means of identification.

Fingerprint readers, which unlike smart cards are mostly one-purpose technologies, could serve as a security alternative if smart-card adoption remains slow.

Beyond its hardware strategy, Who Vision also must get support for its devices built into software before they can be used, and that's where the Entegrity pact is important.

"To the best of our knowledge, it's the first time a software company has done a negotiated deal with a fingerprint hardware company," Dickinson said.

Who Vision said it has an unannounced deal with a major manufacturer of PC keyboards. MAG, which is building a new factory to make the finger sensors, said it will resell 100,000 units this year. Who Vision hopes its sensor will begin showing up in PCs by the end of 1998.

A TactileSense device uses an electro-optical polymer film that transforms a fingerprint into a high-resolution optical image. That digitized image is passed to the PC host, where software processes, stores, and compares the fingerprint, thus identifying the individual and providing access to appropriate information.