Compaq enters fingerprint ID market

Compaq Computer Corp. this month entered the fingerprint identification market, releasing a combination hardware/software product for verifying the identity of someone attempting to access a computer network.

Using a fingerprint reader by Identicator Technology, San Bruno, Calif., Compaq software stores fingerprint information from people authorized to access a network and later uses that information to verify a user's identity. Michael Takemura, product marketing manager for Compaq, described the new product as a replacement for the computer password. "We call it 'the password they'll never forget,' " he said.

Forgetting a password can be an expensive proposition, Takemura said. A user can spend $50 on a phone call to a vendor's help desk after he has lost or forgotten his password.

Compaq's entry into the fingerprint technology market comes as biometrics gains popularity as a way of verifying a computer user's identity. Biometrics is the analysis of biological features such as fingerprints or retinas. "My personal thought is that biometric technology is going to happen sooner or later, and it's starting to become more and more affordable," said Tom Ruggles, principal consultant at the Biometric Consulting Group LLC, Minnesota.

Compaq's offering will run buyers about $100 per package, which includes a fingerprint reader and necessary software, according to Takemura.

Gary Newgaard, director of sales and marketing for Compaq's federal division, said company officials are just beginning to spread the word about the new offering to potential federal customers. "It's new, so we'll be showing it quite a bit at different venues," Newgaard said.

Newgaard said he believes federal customers will need the product, especially as agencies begin collecting, storing and analyzing more data in electronic form. "The sensitivity of the data and the deployment of it is becoming more important," he said.

Ruggles said biometrics might have federal applications such as verifying welfare recipients or monitoring access to military bases.

Not all agencies are eager to jump on the fingerprint technology bandwagon. "[The Environmental Protection Agency] is not pursuing it at this time," said Michele Zenon, special assistant to the director of the office of information resources management at the EPA. The agency has not used fingerprint identification technology because the information on its networks is not that sensitive, she said. "We don't have any information systems that are at the level of a national security system," Zenon said. "And our security folks believe there is sufficient security for those systems at this point using encryption and password control."

But Newgaard said that even agencies with data that is not sensitive— data that is for "public consumption"— will need to guard against unauthorized users. "You don't want some bad person getting in there and changing it," he said.

Takemura acknowledged that biometrics alone will not totally protect data. "It's going to be part of a security scheme that a customer takes," he said.

Gary Higgins, chief engineer for Boeing Information Services at Boeing Co., said his company is investigating the potential for using the Compaq product for federal customers such as the Defense Department and NASA. He said biometrics— in conjunction with other technologies— could serve as one layer of security in these agencies' infrastructures. "Our fundamental philosophy is a layered approach to security," he said.

Higgins also said Boeing is researching the use of such products for more than security. He said biometrics might help network managers collect data needed for better network monitoring, administration and planning.

"What we're trying to strive for is to make administrative complexity go down," he said. "We're kind of looking at [the technology] across a broad spectrum— not just for logging you on to the network."

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