Veridicom Inc.Santa Clara, Calif.

Fingerprint sensor

Doug Bartholomew, Samuel Greengard, Glenn Hasek, John Jesitus, Scott Leibs, Kristin Ohlson, Robert Patton, Barb Schmitz, Tim Stevens, and John Teresko contributed to this article. The growing popularity of electronic commerce is no fluke: It's fast, convenient and remarkably efficient. Yet for every person who ventures online to make purchases and conduct business, half a dozen others shy away because of security concerns and the hassles of maintaining passwords for dozens of Web sites. That may soon change with the Veridicom fingerprint sensor. Once the stuff of spy novels and paranoid Pentagon officials, the biometric approach to security is finally becoming feasible and affordable. Veridicom's technology can authenticate credit-card transactions, provide protection for online banking and brokerage, and guarantee a person's identity for contracts, invoices, and e-mail. The Veridicom fingerprint sensor is a postage-stamp-sized device that uses a special microchip to create a unique three-dimensional image of a person's finger. The unit is small enough to connect to even a notebook computer, and it could also be used at the point of sale to confirm the identity of a credit-card presenter. In that example, the scanner would be matching a person's fingerprint with the corresponding image stored on a magnetic strip or smart card. "There is a tremendous need for faster, easier, and more comprehensive security solutions," says Tom Rowley, CEO of Veridicom, which was funded as a start-up by Lucent Technologies. "As we move into the digital age of commerce, we have to find ways to facilitate transactions across computer networks and across international boundaries. We have to find ways to protect equipment. It's becoming impossible for people to remember all their passwords and PIN numbers." Rowley sees the unit as "the McDonald's of verification." A person simply places his or her finger on the sensor and a second later, after the computer has checked the imprint against the database, a green light appears. There's no software, keyboard, or mouse to fuss with. The user interface is reduced to "put your finger here," he boasts. Chris Byrnes, vice president for services-and-systems management strategy at the Meta Group, Reston, Va., believes that the device could become a standard item on PCs, particularly notebook computers, as early as next year. The chip could eventually be used to protect other items, including cellular phones, cars, and even homes. By maintaining a database for all members of a household, only authorized individuals could gain entry, and a stolen item equipped with the device would be rendered useless. Indeed, the flexibility and durability of the fingerprint sensor is one of its key selling points. It's tough enough to be used at ATM machines, yet precise enough to map 90,000 points in a 300-by-300 array totaling 900 dots per inch. In order to achieve such results, Veridicom developed a special protective coating that's 100 times stronger than glass. The initial price for the Veridicom sensor is $295, compared with about $500 for an optical sensor that's five times as large. It's slated for widespread release early next year, and the price should drop as production increases. Although Rowley admits there's no way to eliminate all fraud, he believes that it's a long-overdue step in the right direction. "These days, people go crazy trying to remember all their passwords and PIN numbers. You don't have to worry about leaving your finger at home or misplacing it under a pile of papers," he says.

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