Identix shrinks fingerprint ID

Identix Inc. last month unveiled a fingerprint reader small enough to be incorporated into cellular phones and portable computers. The DFR 300 is designed to control access to electronic devices by checking a user's fingerprint scan against an image already on file. Fingerprint readers have been used with desktop computers for several years but typically have been too large to be practical in smaller devices.

Identix developed the DFR 300 in partnership with Motorola Inc., which one day may include the new fingerprint sensor in its portable phones. Compaq Computer Corp., which already offers a large reader by Identix in some of its desktop computers, has agreed to include the new product in its Armada line of notebook computers.

Officials involved in the development of the new reader - which is 4.5 millimeters thick - hope the product will open opportunities for fingerprint scanners as replacements for personal identification numbers or passwords on a range of devices.

Fingerprint scans and other biometrics are seen as a better alternative because passwords may be forgotten or stolen, but a fingerprint proves more difficult to usurp.

"It's a good thing in the sense that people need better user-authentication methods," said technology analyst Lance Travis, service director at AMR Research Inc., a market research firm. Travis said fingerprint readers as an extra layer of security probably will be more welcome in the government realm than in the general consumer realm, where using a credit card number to conduct business electronically usually offers sufficient authentication.

In agencies that handle sensitive information, extra security methods may be needed, according to Travis. "I certainly see in the government where they want that extra layer of security," he said.

Smaller sensors, such as the DFR 300, ought to get fingerprint-based security into devices that before might have been bad fits for fingerprint-reading devices. The DFR 300, Evans said, is small enough to include on a PC Card for plugging peripheral devices into laptop and desktop computers.

In the future, fingerprint applications will be "almost wherever you think of passwords or PINs," Evans said. Some federal agencies have shown a keen interest in fingerprint technology for securing a computer network. Evans said agencies such as the Defense Department, the Justice Department, the National Security Agency and the Treasury Department have invested in the technology.

Jim Gaughran, program director for benefits fraud at the Department of Veterans Affairs, is especially bullish on fingerprint technology to verify a person's identity. "I think this is the future," he said. Any other method of verifying a computer user's identity "doesn't tie it to the human. You need to tie it to the human, and biometrics is the only way."

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