Agency gives biometrics a home

The Chicago Housing Authority has given the thumbs up to a fingerprint identification technology that it hopes will provide greater security for its network.

Since its approval last summer, CHA (www.thecha.org) has begun installing the biometric technology in an effort to reduce the myriad of passwords that the 500 or so employees use to access various databases and systems, said Bryan Land, the agency's assistant chief information officer.

The technology would help authenticate a user and possibly reduce the chances of unauthorized access, he said, adding that employees also sometimes share passwords with other people. Land also said the technology reduces the workload of his "fairly small IT shop" of 30 individuals and a help desk that would have to continually deal with password-related problems among the user base at one of the largest public housing agencies in the country.

Gene Chayevsky, president and chief executive officer of Miramar, Fla.-based BioLink Technologies International Inc., which developed the biometric technology that CHA is using, said more than 50 percent of network breaches occur from within an organization. The technology has an audit trail so the agency knows who's accessing what information and when.

Land said CHA employees were receptive to the fingerprint technology, which is less invasive than using retinal technology. BioLink's U-Match Mouse, embedded with a small digital fingerprint reader, scans an individual's thumbprint in about a second. Land said each mouse costs about $85 to $90, and the authentication server costs about $16,000 to $17,000. By next year, the technology should be fully implemented.

Chayevsky said the secure database that authenticates the thumbprint scan doesn't actually contain digital representations of such prints.

"They are, in fact, mathematical models representing the unique points called minutiae of a fingerprint," Chayevsky said. "Most biometric companies don't work with fingerprints, most work with mathematical models."

Although not as accurate as retinal identification technology, Chayevsky said fingerprint technology is "very, very accurate for most enterprise applications."

Chayevsky called CHA "visionaries" and "innovators" in deploying the still-growing technology. "I think this is still fairly early days in the evolution of biometrics generally," he said, adding he expected a lot more government agencies to follow CHA's lead soon.

Land said it's true that governments aren't usually on the leading edge, but added: "This, we felt, was a pretty safe proposition. It was a win-win. We didn't risk anything and we had a lot to gain by it."

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