Biometrics on hold at Treasury

Officials at the Treasury Department's Financial Management Service (FMS)had good reason to be optimistic about their joint pilot program with theArmy at Fort Sill, Okla. Begun in March 1998, the one-year pilot programwas meant to show how smart cards combined with biometric technology couldprovide easier and more secure access to funds for 20,000 recruits whilestreamlining the accounting process.

Under the program, a recruit could use the stored-value smart cardsto make purchases on base by inserting the card into point-of-sale terminalsand then placing his or her index finger on a sensor to verify his or heridentity and authorize the purchase. It was the first large-scale use inthe government of fingerprint biometrics for financial applications.But what FMS officials learned is that the system isn't ready for more widespreaduse.

"We had to have separate pieces of equipment to read the card, scanthe fingerprint and also store the biometric software," said Gary Grippo,chief architect for electronic commerce at FMS. "It would just have beentoo unwieldy and expensive to expand the program in that fashion. What'sneeded is one piece of hardware that caters to everything."

FMS officials are now concentrating on fashioning a number of smallpilot programs that will focus on testing fingerprint-reading capabilitiesembedded on the card itself, a so-called self-validating smart card. Theyhope to begin a pilot program involving 20 to 30 people using such a devicelater this year.

Biometrics eventually will be one of the pillars of government security,Grippo said. A number of agencies already have requirements for fingerprintbiometrics as part of planned financial-transaction systems.

There are some reliable stand-alone biometric products available, hesaid. The problem is trying to integrate them into the kind of back-endaccounting and payment systems needed for complete solutions.

"In the short term, we'll see some excellent uses of the technology,"he said. "But we are still at least a couple of years away [from] wholesaleapplications of biometrics."

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