Sun, partners combine biometrics with smart cards

Two U.S. intelligence agencies are testing a computer security system that combines smart card technology from Sun Microsystems with an Ethernet-capable fingerprint reader, Sun and its partners announced Tuesday.

Art Sands, chief operating officer and executive vice president of Sun partner AC Technology, said he couldn't disclose the names of the two agencies piloting the biometrics system, which runs on Sun's Sun Ray terminals, but the two agencies have been testing the system since January.

The system combines Sun's Sun Ray and smart cards, credit-card sized chips containing information on the owner's identity, with AC Technology's Solaris-based BiObex biometrics software and the "forensic-quality" Verifier E Fingerprint Scanning device from Cross Match Technologies.

The companies hailed the new package as the first such biometrics system to be Ethernet, instead of USB, capable and the first to combine Sun's smart cards with biometrics. The package, which will cost about US$1,800 per seat not including the terminal, is at least six times more expensive than some fingerprint scanners, but the three companies touted the scanner as forensic quality, as defined by the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology, the first forensic-quality biometric system in a Unix environment.

The three companies announced the package at Sun's Security Summit 2003 in Washington, a long-form commercial for Sun's security initiatives attended by government and private-industry technologists.

The biometrics system will soon be available for more government agencies and private businesses; the two intelligence agencies are testing the system until June. While the package may be security overkill for many computer users, the partners have gotten interest from a number of other agencies and industries, including the health-care and financial sectors, where information security is especially important, said Robert Gianni, director of engineering for Sun's Sun Ray project.

The companies are seeing interest from security-conscious organizations with threats such as "identity theft and cyberterrorism becoming more imminent," Tim Murray, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Cross Match Technologies, said in a statement.

With the package, an employee at an intelligence agency could use a smart card to log into any Sun Ray terminal at the agency. The terminal then would ask the employee for a fingerprint scan, with the system deciding what finger should be scanned. Those two identity checks would allow the employee access to the information she's allowed to see, as well as her last desktop session. Smart Cards can also be programmed to allow employees access to buildings, much like bank cards now open locked bank machine lobbies.

The package has been well received at the testing agencies, Sands said. "They love the security, and the fact that they haven't been able to break it yet is a good indication its working well," he added.

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