Small firm seeks to leave its print

Seated side by side, the brothers looked identical, dressed in matching pinstriped suits. But the computer could tell the difference.

With a quick facial scan, it recognized two Asefis in the room: Tony and Thomas, respectively chief executive officer and chief information officer of GAITS Inc. (Global Analytic Information Technology Services), a systems integrator.

"Now you know why we got into biometrics," Tony Asefi said. "It's fun."

Seriously, though, GAITS believes it's on to something hot. A year after companies nationwide began throwing security technologies at the federal government like darts at a bull's eye, the small 8(a) firm has won business in the booming biometrics field and is positioning itself to attract even more.

Demand for the recognition technology, which uses techniques such as eye scans and fingerprinting to identify people, skyrocketed after last September's terrorist attacks. Several agencies, including the new Transportation Security Administration, quickly launched pilot programs to explore its capabilities.

"Biometrics gets a lot of hype because we're all very desperate for a tool to fight terrorism," said John Woodward, a senior policy analyst at think tank Rand. The technology is still new, however, so agencies often must rely on vendor claims to assess a product's capability, he said.

"Everybody says they've got a solution, [but] you've got to put a solution in context," said Chip Mather, senior vice president of Acquisition Solutions Inc., a support contractor to TSA.

GAITS offers an artificial intelligence-based system that provides secure access to buildings and computer networks. A handful of defense and civilian agencies use the product, and the company is talking with officials at Transportation Department bureaus and airports, according to Douglas Risdon, GAITS' senior program director.

"There is no one big player dominating the field," said Jacqueline Lucas, marketing director for the International Biometric Group. "Reliability distinguishes one from another."

GAITS' product is completely reliable thanks to its multilayered approach, according to Tony Asefi. The system is supported by more than one type of biometric — facial and fingerprint scans now, retinas soon and voices further down the road — so the company can tailor it to an organization's needs.

"Most vendors focus on one core technology," Lucas said. "Integrators are able to deploy many."

Another distinction within the industry is product certification, according to GAITS officials.

Sandia National Laboratories approved GAITS' product six months ago, according to Renwick Newsome, the company's director of enterprise development. "Unlike others, this has been validated and accepted by the security community within DOD and civilian agencies," Risdon said.

But the application is only part of the package, Thomas Asefi added. "We help with the integration, maintenance and evolution."

That's good, because the application itself isn't enough, according to Mather. "There are all these issues that have to be addressed — privacy, security, accuracy," he said. "It's much more complex than saying, 'I have a new technology.'"

GAITS is involved through partnering with a working group on biometrics standards — which industry groups are in the process of developing — but officials don't consider the current use of their products a threat to civil liberties. "The purpose of this is identification, not an information database," said William Jaffe, GAITS' vice president for corporate development. "It's a gatekeeper technology."

Still, company leaders know that biometrics could become part of larger initiatives. Schemes to tighten security by issuing national identification cards, for instance, have raised privacy concerns.

"The industry got [off to] a jerky start," Risdon said. We "have now come forward with some technologies that will assist this country, government and world in being a safer place. And we have not even begun to think about the applications that could come out of it."

***

Agencies eyeing biometrics

Federal biometrics projects include:

* Defense Department officials are considering incorporating biometrics into the Pentagon's Common Access Card.

* DOD's Biometrics Management Office is conducting a three-phase "quick look" project that uses iris scan technology to enable access to the Pentagon Athletic Club.

* Transportation Department leaders may use biometrics for the Transportation Worker Identification Credential system.

* The Transportation Security Administration is testing a program that uses biometrics to secure public lockers at airports.

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