Smart building IDs gaining support

Federal officials told Congress on April 25 they support the idea of using a combination of commercially available biometric technology and smart cards to identify every employee entering a federal building.

Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee's Technology and Procurement Policy Subcommittee, said it would take a year or more to enact legislation requiring federal workers to show a tamper-proof identification card, with the price tag running into billions of dollars.

Nevertheless, Davis, speaking at a hearing last week on federal building security, said that after the Sept. 11 attacks, it is essential to provide a workplace that is both secure and open. Instead of relying on traditional photo IDs, Davis wants smart cards that could store a scanned fingerprint, which could be used to verify the identities of employees.

Other biometrics are available, including iris and palm scans, but Davis supports fingerprint scans because they are less expensive and fast enough to avoid causing long lines at building entrances.

"There is no question that the federal government is capable of providing security," Davis said.

"We know we can use brute force to keep people and packages out of buildings," he said. "Our real objective should be the utilization of visible and discreet technologies to provide adequate security."

Meanwhile, the General Services Administration has been working on a range of measures to protect federal buildings, according to F. Joseph Moravec, commissioner of GSA's Public Buildings Service, who testified at the hearing.

Every building is different, and each requires a separate "package" of security tools. "We are determined not to build bunkers," he told the subcommittee.

He said the technology would vary depending on where a federal worker wanted to go. For example, he said, iris scans could be used for a secure area within a building while fingerprint technology could be used at a main entrance. Smart cards also could be used as one of a number of technology tools to enhance security.

"We are going to have some combination of biometrics and smart cards," Moravec said.

GSA Administrator Stephen Perry told vendors on April 24 that smart cards might make it possible to tighten security at federal buildings while cutting costs by reducing the number of security guards and metal detectors, which now serve as the front line of security.

"We believe there is untouched potential for using smart cards to increase security," Perry said.

Phil Kete, who runs the labor relations office for the American Federation of Government Employees, said it's important to make sure the ID cards would be used for security and not other purposes, such as keeping track of when a government worker comes and goes.

"We would do the same thing anytime a new process is implemented," Kete said.

However, Keith Rhodes, chief technologist for the General Accounting Office, said that technology is only one piece of a defense shield.

"Sometimes dogs can sniff out bombs better than technology" can, Rhodes said at the subcommittee hearing.

In a GAO report (see box), Rhodes evaluated the technologies available on the market and their cost. Following the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the federal government turned to barricades and other defense systems to protect against car bombings, he said, but that didn't prevent the Sept. 11 attacks. Similarly, people cannot now rely on biometrics as a panacea.

"Although the newer technologies can contribute significantly to enhancing building security, it is important to realize that deploying them will not automatically eliminate all the risks," Rhodes warned.

William Matthews contributed to this story.

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Tech at use

Where security technology is used in the government:

* Hand scans are used by the Immigration and Naturalization Service for frequent travelers.

* Retina scans are used by the military, CIA and NASA.

* Iris scans are used to control access to restricted areas at the Charlotte/Douglas International Airport in Charlotte, N.C.

* Facial recognition technology is used by various state police departments.

* Speaker verification is used at some U.S. border crossings.

* X-ray scanning systems and closed-circuit television are widely used in federal buildings.

* Explosives-detection systems are used at airports, embassies, border crossings, nuclear facilities, prisons and military sites.

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