Budget committee staff gives a hand to biometric log-on

The shift to a biometric fingerprint-scanning system 'eliminated the password drudgery.'

'House Budget Committee's Richard E. Magee

Olivier Douliery

Richard E. Magee regularly dealt with House Budget Committee staff members who repeatedly forgot their computer passwords. But the committee's information systems manager hadn't felt true user wrath until last year's budget resolution markup, when the network locked out a senior staff member who had repeatedly failed to enter his password accurately.

'The senior staff member needed to get a document, and there was nothing I could do because I was at a remote location,' Magee said. 'He had to wait 15 or 20 minutes until I got there and unlocked his account. It was a stressful time for everyone.'

But Magee and committee staff members no longer face such frustration. The committee last month installed a biometric fingerprint-reading application and accompanying readers to replace the use of personal identification numbers and passwords for PC access.

The move to the biometric access devices was spurred by House requirements that committees increase their cybersecurity. Staff members were forced to use more-complex passwords that had to be changed often, Magee said.

'The staff members just felt stupid if they didn't do something that was pretty simple,' he said. 'This was one of the strongest reasons to go to the biometric technology'getting a little relief from all the passwords and changes we had to make.'

Magee and his IT team installed about 45 fingerprint scanners from Zvetco Biometrics LLC of Orlando, Fla., and Saf2000 biometric authentication software from SafLink Corp. of Bellevue, Wash., on the committee's PCs and servers.

Two fingers

Staff members enrolled in the system by registering any two fingerprints'one from each hand'using the administrator's scanner. The fingerprint files are stored in a Microsoft SQL Server database that resides on a Dell OptiPlex server.

Users also created backup PINs and permanent passwords in case the biometric system is turned off or unavailable.

'We were amazed by the simplicity of installation and ease of use,' Magee said. 'Many staff members were resistant at first because they didn't know where their fingerprints were going. But we assured them it was not going outside our domain, and they would never have to change their passwords again.'

Staff members log on to their computers by placing their fingers on the 2-inch by 1.5-inch by 0.5-inch scanners. The hardware uses an electronic sensor impulse to scan and measure the features of the fingerprints.

The SafLink software uses the ANSI BioAPI standard to authenticate each user's fingerprint scan against the fingerprint files in the database, said SafLink's director of public sector sales, Matt Shannon.

'The criteria for passwords were numbers, letters or symbols, and it was difficult to change the passwords in Microsoft Windows NT or 2000,' Magee said. 'With the biometric device, staff members really like using it and it eliminated the password drudgery.'

Magee said the system cost about $200 per user. The database was an additional $800, bringing the total to about $10,000 for the entire system.

Tom Doggett, SafLink's director of marketing, said PIN and password systems cost on average about $200 to $400 a year to maintain, and a biometric system can save users about 50 percent of the time they spend dealing with passwords.

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