Recruits use smart cards for supplies

Army recruits entering basic training at Fort Sill, Okla., this month received smart cards that store copies of their fingerprints to identify them whenever they spend more than $10 to purchase supplies on base.

The pilot project, the last of three digital-cash applications being tested at Army bases by the Treasury Department's Financial Management Service, aims to demonstrate how money stored on smart cards is more convenient and more secure than dollar bills. Capt. Brian England, who manages personnel processing at Fort Sill, said using the cards will save trainees, vendors and accountants hours of paperwork.

The smart cards, supplied by Gemplus Corp., come loaded with $200 to $260 salary advances that cover trainees' initial expenses, including their first military haircuts. Before the pilot started March 2, Fort Sill recruits had to sign paper vouchers for every purchase, England said, and the information had to be transcribed into the Army's accounting system before vendors could be paid.

Gary Grippo, FMS' program manager for electronic money, said earlier smart card tests at Fort Knox, Ky., and Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., showed making payments with smart cards saved each unit 20 to 45 minutes a day— time they could devote to extra training. But in one test, where the cards were secured with personal identification numbers, recruits lost "a few hours" getting their cards replaced if they forgot their PINs.

That is why FMS decided to test biometric identifiers, choosing fingerprints because they are less expensive to digitize than other physical characteristics, Grippo said. The government also has used hand geometry, retinal scans and voice prints to identify employees.

To verify their identities, recruits place their index fingers on a special sensor. Software supplied by Identicator Technology compares the information from the sensor with the fingerprint stored on the card. The cards expire once a recruit's seven-week training period is over, England said.

In the first week, Fort Sill issued smart cards to 150 trainees, but Lynda Aguon, manager of the Artillery Bowl PX at the post, said that in the summer, 900 recruits pass through her store every week to stock up on supplies. She would spend an hour or two every morning adding up the charges for the Army's finance office.

Already, Aguon said, she has noticed a difference. The point-of-sale terminals, supplied by VeriFone Inc., total her sales automatically, and "I don't have to come in so early,'' she said.

But using digital fingerprints has been controversial due to fears that the data will be misused. "It gives you an uneasy feeling because fingerprints are traditionally associated with the criminal justice system,'' said Evan Hendricks, editor of "Privacy Times," a newsletter on privacy issues.

Grippo said FMS tried to allay privacy concerns by storing the fingerprint as an encrypted file on each card, not in an online database. "It's only on the card of the actual user, and no one has access to it,'' he said.

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