Feds debate what's limiting biometrics

Rick Lazarick

No federal agency is ready to apply biometric technology enterprisewide.

That was the conclusion of government and industry leaders at a conference last month in Arlington, Va., sponsored by the Biometric Consortium.

The Defense Department leads in biometric implementation, which is far from pervasive elsewhere in government, said Bruce Mehlman, assistant secretary of Commerce for technology policy.

Some speakers were optimistic that U.S. airports would have biometric capability by the end of next year. But others pointed to incomplete standards, weak policy and a lack of funding as the cause of the dearth of enterprise uses.

Rick Lazarick, program manager for Transportation Security Administration's Airport Access Control Pilot Program, said he and his staff are lining up airports and vendors to participate in biometric tests between December and August.

The Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001 mandated $23 million worth of security tests, including biometric ones, at 20 airports.

Lazarick said his project focuses on verification of airport and airline employees, not passengers. TSA is selecting a systems integrator and the first 10 airport test sites.

The five most promising biometric technologies for employee access control are face, fingerprint, hand geometry, iris and voice recognition, Lazarick said. He listed them in alphabetical order to emphasize that none of the five is yet ahead of the pack.

Catherine Tilton, the consortium's chairwoman and a representative of the International Committee for IT Standards in Washington, said the government should use some of its unspent national security funds on biometrics testing and research.

But Mehlman said lack of money is not the issue. 'There's more than one bucket of money,' he said. The administration allocated $40 billion for homeland security and set aside $112 billion for all R&D in fiscal 2002, he said.

Getting serious

Since Sept. 11, 2001, DOD, the General Services Administration, Justice and Treasury departments, and Federal Aviation Administration have issued requests for proposals or information about biometric pilots.

"I've seen an exponential increase in interest'a lot more serious procurements and larger pilots," Tilton said. She said standards already exist, such as the biometric application programming interface (BioAPI).

Devices that follow BioAPI for capturing and matching biometric data can run under Microsoft Windows, Unix or Linux, she said.

The Common Biometric Exchange File Format, approved by the consortium last year, makes possible the interagency exchange of biometric files. Both standards are approved and ready, Tilton said.

But Roger Quint, chief scientist at 123 ID Inc. of Grand Forks, N.D., said he doesn't want to make his fingerprint scanners adhere to a nonmandatory government standard that might not prove interoperable.

GCN associate editor Patricia Daukantas contributed to this story.

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