Unlocking Fingerprints

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 28, 2006

The technology has been the stuff of movies for years: A secret agent runs his fingertip and an encrypted ID card over a pair of sensors. There's a match, and the door swings open.

In the coming months, a wave of government initiatives could start making such high-tech methods of identification commonplace -- beginning with the replacement this fall of federal employee IDs. Similar cards are planned for transportation workers, first responders and visitors to the United States.

Packed with biometric data such as fingerprints and containing a computer chip with room to expand the amount of information stored, the new IDs represent a potential boon to technology companies eyeing an estimated $8 billion in identity-related contracts. Firms such as BearingPoint Inc. and Lockheed Martin Corp. have set up showcase identity labs, pulling technology from different companies into turnkey operations. Hundreds of smaller companies, down to manufacturers of plastic cards, are vying for part of the market.

The biggest business opportunity still looms: Driver's licenses, which are due for a retooling under new federal laws.

"When you're talking about credentialing the federal workforce and contractors, you're talking about maybe 10 million people. When you're talking first responders, you're at 20, 30 or 40 million people," said Thomas Greco, a vice president at Herndon-based Cybertrust Inc. "But when you're talking credentialing all registered drivers in the United States, you're up to hundreds of millions of people. Nobody is losing sight of that."

In an era of chronic concern over terrorism and anxiety over immigration, the business of determining who is who has become increasingly urgent. But it is not without controversy. Americans have long resisted the idea of a national ID card, for example. The growing sophistication of computer databases and networks has heightened privacy concerns -- as have data breaches, from the theft or loss of government computers to AOL's online posting of 36 million keyword searches conducted by hundreds of thousands of subscribers. If the pool of government programs using the new identity technology gets large enough and the amount of information collected gets detailed enough, "there will be a lot of pressure for these programs to converge," creating a de facto national identity system, said Barry Steinhardt, director of the technology and liberty project at the American Civil Liberties Union.

Use of a new government standard may prompt the private sector to follow. The banking, retailing and health-care industries are monitoring the federal initiatives, ready to apply stricter identity standards when dealing with their employees and customers. In an online world, the technology could also be used to establish that two people who never meet in person really are who they say they are.

Federal agencies are supposed to begin issuing their new ID cards in October, complying with a 2004 Bush administration directive requiring more stringent methods for tracking who gets access to federal facilities.

The new cards must meet a rigorous federal standard that details -- down to the size of the typeface -- what the new cards look like and how they are used. At a minimum, the IDs will require fingerprints and possibly retinal scans or other forms of biometric identification, depending on the agency. The cards are also likely to incorporate magnetic strips, personal identification numbers and digital photos, as well as holograms and watermarks to deter forgery. Before employees and contractors can get their new credentials, they will have to submit to a thorough background check, if they have not already.

By employing multiple methods of checking identity, officials hope to make it as difficult as possible for someone other than a card's owner to use it. Ultimately, the cards will determine not just who gets into buildings but also who receives access to computer applications and files.

Because the information needed to verify an individual's identity won't take up much space on the computer chip in each card, plenty more can be added. An employee's skills, work hours, medical history and job evaluations, for example, could all be included -- much to the dismay of civil liberties advocates.

Already, other federal programs are borrowing from the new standard for government workers. A program to issue credentials to all transportation workers to monitor who has access to air and seaports, for instance, will subject those workers to much the same process as federal employees.

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