Biometric devices gain a foothold in consumer products
SAN FRANCISCO (MarketWatch) -- Imagine that running your index finger over a sensor embedded in your computer logs you on, and then swiping the same sensor with your middle finger opens your Word program and your ring finger gets you into Excel. Sound futuristic? It's not. It's just one way fingerprint scanners embedded in computers today work to protect data and reduce the need to remember multiple passwords: Your fingerprints become a password manager, and a designated keystroke.
U.S. consumers are increasingly likely to run across such devices that use biometrics -- biological characteristics such as fingerprints, faces, irises and other means to authenticate someone's identity. From the supermarket to the cell phone, biometric products are making inroads as an alternative to the variety of passwords and PINs consumers use today.
In some grocery-store check-out lanes, customers who've preregistered their fingerprint can simply swipe their finger to have their grocery bill deducted from their checking account. You don't need to bring your wallet, nor remember your loyalty card. Pay By Touch, maker of fingerprint scanners used by grocery-store chains including Piggly Wiggly in the South and Albertson's Jewel-Osco stores in the Midwest, says it has 2.3 million people enrolled in various fingerprint-authentication programs.
Hewlett-Packard Co. says it now offers fingerprint scanners in 80% of the laptop computers it aims at the business market.
In Japan, customers at some automated-teller machines place their hand in a scanner for access to their accounts.
Five million cell phones in Japan and Korea are embedded with fingerprint sensors to restrict access to the photos, e-mails and address books stored there, said Jim Burke, a vice president at Melbourne, Fla.-based AuthenTec, maker of those 5 million scanners plus others used in computers and other devices. That cell-phone technology will be available in cell phones in the U.S. in 2007, Burke estimates.
The recent growth at AuthenTec suggests biometric technology is moving forward. From its founding in 1998 through 2003, AuthenTec sold one million sensors. In 2005, it sold three million. This year, the company estimates it'll top six million, Burke said.
Same goes for Pay By Touch. In the beginning of 2006, their biometric payment devices were in just 120 stores nationwide. They now have installations in thousands of locations and contracts that put them in 10,000 stores by years end. In addition, they have launched on on-line version of it's payment system which is designed to work with all the aforementioned biometric devices.
Pay By Touch doesn't store fingerprint images, but a numerical represent-ation of that image. That means a fraudster who hacks into a vendor's fingerprint database would find groups of numbers which are unreadable by a fingerprint scanner. The risk is that the thief then figures out a way to bypass the reader, and feed the numerical representation directly into the computer, thus fooling it into approving access.
That's an unlikely situation, industry experts said, and standards recommended by the International Biometric Industry Association call for a type of security layer that prevents that situation, said Hamilton, the IBIA chairman.
Still, the thought of scanning a body part often stops criminals cold, Williams said. Usually, fraudsters "won't want to provide that fingerprint. That's one reason why biometrics is a great deterrent. As soon as [that crime is connected] to their physical person, it becomes undeniably tied to them.