Ta-ta, passwords

Associated Press

City workers in Oceanside, Calif., were drowning in passwords. One to check e-mail, others to see water billing records or police reports, all on top of the codes and personal identification numbers they had to keep straight in their off-the-job lives.

Time and money were wasted answering up to 30 calls a day from workers who forgot or lost passwords.

Now, those calls are down to one or two a week.

Two years ago, Oceanside began installing mouse-sized fingerprint scanners at city computers. So instead of fumbling for a password, city workers now need only place finger to scanner to get onto the network.

“It’s been a big success,” said Michael Sherwood, the city’s information technology director. “The only thing we’re wondering is, why hasn’t the rest of the world caught on?”

Biometric devices that identify people by physical characteristics – such as eye patterns, voice tones and handprints – have been the stuff of cinema for decades.

In the real world, prohibitive costs have restricted their use mainly to government offices and military bases.

Until now, that is.

As sensitive and important business is increasingly conducted online, biometrics’ day may finally have come. Within the next year, mobile phones and personal computers will have fingerprint scanners as optional equipment, providing convenience as well as increased security.

Passwords can be easily stolen. Fingerprints can’t.

That’s why government benefits such as welfare payments are increasingly being secured with biometrics, and why the Immigration and Naturalization Service relies on handprint scans to help some 45,000 frequent international travelers re-enter the country speedily at six major airports without a passport check.

At the huge Comdex high-tech trade show that opened Sunday in Las Vegas, dozens of biometrics companies will be competing for attention, pushing everything from voice-recognition software to programs that can purportedly distinguish computer users by how they type their password.

“Before it was this James Bond kind of stuff, with retina scans, that kind of thing,” said Sean Berg, security segment manager at Dell Computer Corp., which will offer fingerprint scanners on cards that plug into laptops. “Now it’s much more prevalent, much easier to use and much more affordable for the consumer.”

Sales of biometric-related hardware and software amounted to only $60 million last year, but that figure is expected to reach the hundreds of millions by 2002 or 2003, said Arabella Hallawell, a Gartner Group analyst.

Biometric devices are also expected to get a boost because they can be used to initiate digital signatures, which last month became a legally legitimate means of making online transactions in the United States.

“With e-business, as you get much more deeper, richer types of services offered, you’re going to need to know with some level of precision that the people on the other end of the computer, Web-enabled phone or kiosk – you have to make sure they are who they say they are,” Hallawell said.

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