Fit to Print

Biometrics help identify insurance agents, other workers.

by / March 1, 2007

Florida has a problem.

Performing background checks on tens of thousands of its insurance agents takes too long. The problem needs fixing.

The state can fingerprint potential agents, but the process is laborious. The FBI can take 90 to 180 days to return background information. "It becomes a matter of just getting in line and waiting," said Nina Banister, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Financial Services (FLDFS).

But with biometric technology, Banister said, the process can be reduced to a matter of days. "The quicker process just serves everybody better," she added.

Recently the FLDFS engaged L-1 Identity Solutions and its subsidiary Integrated Biometric Technology (IBT) to build an Automated Fingerprint-Based Applicant Processing System (AFAPS). The five-year, $22 million project should record the identities of more than 70,000 resident and nonresident insurance agents.

The contract award follows a one-year pilot project between L-1 Identity Solutions and the state. Through that project, the state agency used the biometric technology in five counties. The pilot showed that expediting background checks could ease the burden on an already busy agency.

"We have to do the review and screening of all agent applications," Banister explained. Each form of insurance -- life, health and annuities -- requires its own qualifications and professional criteria. "Then once they have a license, we ensure that they maintain the continuing education credentials that they are required to have by law," she said.

With all these screening steps to attend to, expedited background checks give examiners one less thing to worry about.

Biometric Breakthrough
Fingerprinting helps the state weed out potential frauds.

"This whole business is really to determine: Do we know who the person is who's providing the service? Is that person who they say they are?" said Doni Fordyce, executive vice president of corporate communications for L-1 Identity Solutions.

Such background checks take on special significance in Florida, with its high percentage of older residents vulnerable to fraud. Without solid identification, practically anyone could print up letterhead and start collecting premiums.

IBT uses hardware from its sister company Identix to collect fingerprints through an optical scanner. The data is then processed by the company's proprietary software and matched against criminal databases made available by government and law enforcement agencies.

The scanner system can read a fingerprint regardless of dirt, residue or other interferences. The program reads the fingerprint's minutia, such as splits, ridge patterns and other details. These points do not change over time and can be used as the basis for consistent identification, according to IBT.

Known as minutia-based fingerprint systems, such applications can get an accurate print in spite of cuts and scars. Likewise, such systems don't require a full print to make a match. Even a partial print may deliver sufficient basis for identification.

Fordyce calls this high-speed, high-volume fingerprinting a big leap forward from the largely unverified identity systems that have been the norm. "Most people just have a database of persons by name," she said, adding that these systems lack verifiable forms of identification. "They may have a profile of who that person is, but they are never really able to attach a credential to that person."

IBT already operates a similar program in 35 states, running background checks on commercial drivers who carry hazardous materials.

Banister said the FLDFS plans to open fingerprinting centers statewide to provide practical and convenient access for potential insurance agent applicants. It is worth the effort, she said, to head off potential problems before serious issues arise. "By weeding out applicants who may have a proclivity to take advantage of consumers, it reduces the number of investigations we may have to do on the back end."

L-1 Identity Solutions already operates 32 fingerprinting centers in Florida, five of which participated in the one-year AFAPS pilot.

Serving a Need
Industry experts point to numerous reasons why states and municipalities may be queuing up to implement fingerprint identification.

First is the increasing public acceptance of fingerprinting as a benign form of identification -- not something merely equated with felons. Nine out of 10 top PC manufacturers now offer notebook models with embedded fingerprint sensors, according to Eric Bauer, a marketing analyst for AuthenTec, a fingerprint sensor security company. He also points out that 2010 census workers will be using fingerprints to secure their census-taking devices.

Perhaps most telling, Bauer suggested, is the cost. With adoption in the consumer market, the average cost of a fingerprint sensor has dropped below the $5 mark.

The push for identification also is being driven by Jessica's Law in Florida, which requires schools to run checks on anyone working on school grounds. "Most state laws require school teachers to be fingerprinted and have a background check," said IBT CEO Charlie Carroll. "You've got workers being fingerprinted before they can come on school property."

Moreover, Florida isn't the only state looking at fingerprint technology potential for its insurance agents. In Pennsylvania, applicants' digits get scanned at Thomson Prometric Exam Centers using Live Scan biometric technology. Operators of the system say that by tapping into FBI databases, the electronic capture method typically generates criminal history records in less than 10 days, as compared to 30 days for ink cards.

Banister suggested the state might ultimately look to expand its use of fingerprinting to health care and education. In both of these areas, individuals often come into contact with the public in sensitive ways.

But it is less about numbers, she said, than about fulfilling agency missions. "Our first priority is protecting consumers, and with this fingerprinting program, we can make sure that candidates [in different fields] are good upstanding people."
Adam Stone Contributing Writer

A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide. 

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