Not ready for prime time?

Biometric technology is clearly an alluring solution for many homeland security-related problems.

Whether it's in a building or on a network, most security systems work by setting up a list of individuals who have access privileges and providing those people with a means of identifying themselves. The weakness in most systems is the identification process, because passwords or personal identification numbers can be stolen or easily deciphered.

Biometric systems avoid that problem by relying on fingerprints, iris scans or other physical characteristics that are unique to individuals.

The technology has garnered a lot of attention since last year's Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, especially as federal agencies seek ways to beef up security.

Many agencies are discovering that, although alluring, biometric technology has its problems. Foremost is the complexity of the solutions.

In a tightly controlled environment, fingerprint or facial scans can be highly reliable. But the airports, customs offices and other facilities in which such systems might be deployed are hardly ideal environments for the sensitive equipment. Cases of mistaken identity — whether it's making a wrong match or missing a sought-after individual — could quickly become frustrating.

It's not surprising then that few agencies have actually deployed new systems, despite all the hype. But that's not to say that this is another case of overblown expectations. Rather, it's a matter of matching complex solutions to complex problems.

Even in the best scenario, it's no small task to deploy biometric systems, because they require complicated infrastructures that include scanners, networks, processing systems and possibly card readers. And most agencies are still at the low end of a steep learning curve as they confront questions about the speed and reliability of the technology.

To dismiss the technology as unviable would be a mistake. But the experts are correct: Rushing it into the field before understanding its complexity would be a greater mistake.

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