LAS VEGAS - Fresh concerns about security have put fingerprint readers, iris scanners and other biometrics gear on the front burner at this year's Comdex, where businesses can choose from a raft of products for securing access to buildings and computer networks.
Products on show for guarding PCs and networks include an iris scanner from Panasonic Corp. and a computer mouse from Siemens AG with a built-in fingerprint reader. The systems often include software for granting access privileges on a per-user basis to files and applications. Other IT-related products were offered here to authenticate parties at each end of an Internet transaction.
For organizations looking to keep physical intruders at bay, a raft of access systems were shown, some of which can be bolted onto existing security systems without having to rewire buildings, according to vendors here.
Niche markets were also served. Members of the Los Angeles Police Department made their way to Las Vegas Wednesday to inspect a prototype gun holster with a built-in fingerprint scanner, said Lennart Carlson, president and chief executive officer of Sweden's Fingerprint Cards AB, which helped develop the product. The idea is that if the wrong person reaches in to draw the pistol, the holder won't release the gun.
Biometrics firms here said business was already brisk before the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. Improvements in how reliable products are and how far they can scale, combined with the expanding use of the Internet, have helped push biometrics beyond the government, financial, medical and transportation industries and into the "commercial early adopter" stage, said Grant Evans, executive vice president for global strategy with Identix Inc.
New laws passed since the attacks that require airports, trucking firms and other businesses to monitor employees more closely have greatly fueled the growth, while concerns about individual privacy have eased somewhat, particularly in the U.S.
"People are willing to put their finger on a scanner; they weren't so willing to do that before Sept. 11," said Thor Christensen, president and CEO of Biometrix Inc, which showed its network security software being used with Siemens' ID Mouse.
The attacks also affected the type of products in demand. Interest in equipment for guarding PCs and networks increased slightly, while equipment for securing buildings, particularly at airports, rose dramatically. Also in greater demand are applicant screening services, which fingerprint current and potential employees and run the results against an FBI database of known offenders, Evans said.
In the workplace, biometrics offers a way to deal with ever-proliferating passwords as well as locking down applications. A system from Identix for managing access to computer programs requires a one-time fee of about US$150 per user, including a fingerprint reader and the client and server software. An additional $40 or so adds single-sign-on access to a half-dozen applications, Evans said.
The biometrics industry will rake in some $523 million this year, increasing to $729 million in 2002, according to the International Biometric Group, an industry association. Fingerprint readers -- sold wholesale to original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) for as little as $10 -- accounted for almost half of those sales, followed by facial scanners with 15 percent and iris scanners with 6 percent, the industry group said.
A survey of end users found people were most comfortable having their fingerprint scanned, followed by their voice and their face, the industry group found. Least popular was keystroke scanning, which measures the pressure and rhythm of key strokes to determine a user's identity.
Biometrics isn't a silver bullet for security issues. Identifying criminals through screening services, for example, depends on their fingerprints already being stored in a database of offenders. More disturbingly, determined criminals might sever a finger to gain access to a protected building, although more advanced systems check for signs of life as well as a fingerprint match.
"Biometrics won't solve all the problems; it will help to solve many of them," Evans of Identix said.
Here are a few of the newer products and technologies on show here this week:
-- Panasonic gave one of the first public outings for its Authenticam, a small video camera bundled with iris recognition software from Iridian Technologies Inc. The product sits by a user's PC and is designed for any business or consumer looking to shield access to applications and networks. The device retails in the US for $239. It can also be used as a standard digital camera for Web conferencing, and works with programs such as Microsoft Corp.'s NetMeeting, the company said. The company is at www.panasonic.com.
-- The biometrics division of Siemens AG showed a new version of its ID Mouse, which embeds a fingerprint scanner in what looks like a standard PC mouse to block access to PCs and networks. The ID Mouse Professional comes with a software development kit that lets businesses tailor it somewhat to their needs. It's available now for Windows 98, ME, 2000 and NT 4.0, priced at $119, Siemens said. More information is at www.siemensidmouse.com.
-- Precise Biometrics launched the Precise BioAccess SC, a new fingerprint reader that can be installed at building entrances to ensure only authorized people enter. The product is compatible with common standards for existing, non-biometric access control systems, including Data/Clock (Magstripe) and Wiegand, which means companies should be able to install the system without needing to rewire their buildings, officials here said. The company is at www.precisebiometrics.com.
-- Looking to help boost the security of Internet transactions, SSP Solutions introduced its SSP 250 smart card reader, which combines a thumbprint, password and PKI encryption to help ensure that the person on the end of an Internet transaction is who they say they are. The system requires a PC with USB and serial ports and runs on Windows 95, 98, ME and 2000. Pricing wasn't immediately available. The company is at www.sspsolutions.com.
-- AuthenTec Inc. of Melbourne, Florida, gave one of the first public outings for its EntrePad AES3500, a tiny fingerprint sensor designed for use with mobile gadgets such as laptops, cell phones and PDAs. The device, aimed at hardware equipment makers, measures 6.5 mm by 6.5 mm and will be priced at less than $10.00 for orders of 500,000. Technical evaluation kits are available now and the product is expected to ship commercially in the second quarter next year. The company is at www.authentitec.com.