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Unlocking Fingerprints

In addition, the Real ID Act, approved by Congress last year, aims to standardize security features on driver's licenses by mid-2008. The Department of Homeland Security has not yet set the standards that states will have to follow. It probably won't include the advanced biometrics the federal government is using for its employees, and states are pushing hard to avoid a complex reengineering of the ubiquitous, low-tech driver's license.

Nonetheless, the companies that make the cards, the scanning devices and the software needed to run identity systems are closely watching the driver's license requirements. They say they understand the privacy concerns but also expect that security will remain a top priority -- with ID standards likely to get stricter, the technology more sophisticated, and the business more profitable.

"No one's going to want technology that just exposes them to more risk," said Greco, whose company, Cybertrust, focuses on information security.

At BearingPoint's McLean offices, the company has set up a room to show off a range of identity systems, including machines for taking fingerprints, scanning irises, recognizing faces or even differentiating between individuals based on the shape of a hand.

"We think it's a terrific area of opportunity," said Gordon Hannah, who leads BearingPoint's efforts to win identity contracts.

Earlier this month, the General Services Administration awarded BearingPoint a five-year deal worth up to $105 million to supply new IDs to any agency that wants them. Agencies that do not buy their cards through the GSA contract are holding their own competitions.

That may be just the beginning. A recent study by the Stanford Washington Research Group and an expert in identity management put the value of the 10 biggest U.S. identity initiatives at $8 billion over the next five years, with an additional $14 billion coming from overseas.

From those programs, identity businesses expect other opportunities to emerge.

"One of the inhibitors has been the cost of the technology. But with the widespread adoption by the government, the cost of everything is going to come down," said Jon Rambeau, director of credentialing at Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin.

State and local governments are considered major potential buyers. Among their needs are credentials for first responders so that officials can verify the identity of people who show up to help in the event of an emergency.

On the commercial side, too, boosters of identity technology say the opportunities abound. Banks, for instance, may want secure cards that can guarantee that someone trying to cash a check really is the intended recipient. Hospitals are looking into using the identity systems for a more reliable way of accessing medical records. And retailers have been working on allowing consumers to make purchases with the swipe of a finger, instead of a card.

Nor do the opportunities stop at the U.S. border. California-based contractor Computer Sciences Corp. has enrolled 40 million people in identity programs worldwide. But on a planet of 6.5 billion, the company thinks it has only scratched the surface.

"Each country has exactly the same issues: How do you facilitate security, facilitate movement across borders and protect privacy all at the same time?" said Tim Ruggles, CSC's director of border and immigration solutions. "That's a tough one."


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