Because of their size, motor vehicle biometric systems are not cheap. Root says cost has been another contributing factor to the slow acceptance of biometrics at DMVs, but he expects that to change as prices continue to drop. He and other officials noted that scanners that cost as much as $2,200 in 1995 can be purchased today for less than $100.

Patching Security Holes

Although privacy concerns have thwarted government efforts to use biometrics to reduce fraud in programs involving citizens, it hasnt stopped one of the faster growing biometric applications: security. The military and national security agencies have been using different types of biometrics for security purposes for some time. The Immigration and Naturalization Service uses a recognition system based on hand geometry at border control checkpoints. Most recently, NASA has announced that it will test an Internet-based biometric security system for engineers and scientists who have to access secure networks from remote locations.

The use of biometrics for security in state and local government is virtually unknown. However, the city of Oceanside, Calif., became one of the first jurisdictions to do so when it recently replaced its password security system on its computer network with a finger scanning system. Nearly 1,200 government workers start the day by typing their name on the computer and putting their finger on a pad -- no bigger than a computer mouse -- that scans their fingerprint and logs them on to the network.

Authentication is quick -- 25 percent faster than typing in a password, according to Michael Sherwood, the citys IT director. But thats not the only reason they chose biometrics. "We have been able to cut down on the number of calls from staff who have lost their passwords or have had their account locked out of the system," Sherwood said.

Previously, problems with passwords occurred anywhere from five to 15 times a day, costing the city as much as $35,000 annually in labor expenses, not to mention lost productivity, according to Sherwood.

The solution was an enterprise biometric security system from Identix. For less than $100,000, the city virtually eliminated security problems and costs related to network logons. Once the staff understood why the city was turning to biometrics, they quickly accepted the new security system. "Most approve of it," said Sherwood. "They dont have to remember their passwords, which relieves a bit of stress when they come [to work] in the morning, especially after a long weekend or a vacation."

Besides logon security, the systems features also include biometric authentication to encrypt files or folders, lock applications and create secure information packages for e-mail attachment delivery. Similar technology is being used in Spain so that citizens can withdraw social security benefits from ATM machines and kiosks. Floridas Supreme Court also has selected Identixs biometric system to secure its 650-seat wide area network.

Although biometric technology isnt perfect, IT managers like Sherwood say it provides an increased layer of assurance in a world where information may be the most valuable asset but is constantly vulnerable to attack. Whats important is that its easy to use and manage, and the costs keep dropping.

"Its not a cure-all to security problems, but we like it," Sherwood said.

Tod Newcombe  |  Features Editor