Fingerprints are losing their stigma.

Long scorned as a security measure that could never win consumer acceptance, fingerprinting is rapidly gaining adherents in banking, government, and other organizations in search of a mass-market breakthrough in personal identification technology.

Fingerprinting has already crept into numerous state welfare and drivers licensing systems. That puts it just a short leap away from bank automated teller machines and retail points of sale, where it could presumably replace the more technically unreliable and theft-prone personal identification numbers.

No potential user is talking it up more than MasterCard International. It shows a fingerprint system in a television commercial and announced last week that it will test "finger minutiae" at its headquarters as a step toward larger market trials.

Joel Lisker, MasterCard's senior vice president for security and risk management, called fingerprinting "the most promising prospect for positive identification of cardholders.

"It is relatively inexpensive, and actually cheap at large scale," Mr. Lisker said.

To be sure, usage by MasterCard employees in Purchase, N.Y., is a long way from mass deployment in payment systems. Consumers may be slow to submit to procedures more commonly associated with criminality and Big Brother, though supporters like Mr. Lisker contend the right kind of marketing will make the public as receptive as it is to metal detectors at airports.

Meanwhile, suppliers of fingerprint technology are still struggling for mass-market viability. Aside from costs and practical constraints, they have been up against identification systems based on other physical, or "biometric," characteristics like hand geometry, voice recognition, iris or retina patterns in the eye, and even an infrared imaging technique called facial thermography.

All were vying for attention last week at the Cardtech/Securtech conference in Atlanta, an annual showcase for smart cards, biometrics, and other advanced payment and identification technologies. All have made significant progress in feasibility, costs, and even commercial sales.

At least two branches within Chase Manhattan Corp. are preparing to test Moscom Corp. voice verification.

HandKey, a hand-geometry tool from Recognition Systems Inc. of Campbell, Calif., has made major strides both in controlling access to secure areas and in customer recognition programs, such as one endorsed by Italian banks. The U.S. government has used it to speed passport processing for frequent international travelers.

But fingerprinting - because of its conceptual simplicity, easy compatibility with card-based systems, and in terms of sheer numbers of available products - seems to have an edge over the competitors.

"Some devices in the field just haven't done the job to prevent illegal card use," said Michael Blewett, executive vice president of Comparator Systems Corp., Newport Beach, Calif., which gained notoriety the week before when its penny-stock price soared and sparked a securities industry inquiry.

"Fingerprint biometrics will both deter and prevent."

Identix Inc., a leader in the field, trotted out several clients and strategic partners in Atlanta to make a case that the technology "works and is out there," said Anna Stockel, director of the fingerprint identity division.

The Sunnyvale, Calif., company's ambitious vision is to replace or augment not just passwords and codes, but car keys, house keys, and other secure entry devices with its personal verification technology. Identix provides a "biometric engine" that companies like Oracle Corp. and Verifone Inc. incorporate in their products.

Verifone demonstrated an Identix attachment to a point of sale system at Cardtech/Securtech. A New York bank is testing something similar at one of its branches.

"We feel strongly that the next wave (in security) is biometric, and will very likely involve fingerprint technology," said Verifone vice president Greg Lewis.

"Organized crime gets smarter every year, and so every year we have to get smarter," Mr. Lewis said. "Personal identification numbers are not a likely application for credit cards.

"Fingerprints look like the answer. It fits in with our core competencies."

Mr. Lewis noted that Oracle, months away from a fingerprint option to police access to data networks, is a Verifone strategic partner. And Verifone works closely with all the major consumer card systems, which are "looking for better technology."

Encouraging signs of fingerprint acceptance are coming from abroad.

Mr. Lisker of MasterCard said studies by APACS - the British Association for Payment Clearing Services- have indicated greater consumer receptivity to fingerprints than PINs.

Spain has begun collecting fingerprints for its social security system, currently on a voluntary basis, to ensure people don't enroll twice. The project is on its way to 40 million cards; last week it won the Smart Card Industry Association's outstanding application of the year award.

Mr. Lewis cited a test in the Phillipines that demonstrated fingerprinting's "powerful deterrent effect," reducing fraudulent payouts in a government benefits system.

Dual enrollment is also a bane of U.S. agencies. Connecticut has incorporated finger minutiae into its general assistance cards, using imaging software from National Registry Inc., St. Petersburg, Fla. The finger "template" is stored on a bar code, but it also can fit on a magnetic stripe or chip within a card.

On the down side, New York City has been getting complaints from welfare recipients who enrolled as requested in a new fingerprint data base, only to have their benefits inexplicably cut off by a computer problem. These systems are complex; fingerprinting is one of many components that must work together seamlessly.

The financial industry may be less concerned about operational glitches than cost-benefits.

Finger-sensing devices cost $600 or more, but mass production can bring prices under $100, Mr. Lisker said.

Oscar Pieper, chief executive of Identicator Corp., the San Bruno, Calif., company working closely with MasterCard, said a device like the one he was displaying last week that costs $295 in quantity will soon be available for around $50 - cheap enough to be added to virtually any computer or peripheral.

But though the technology is available, Mr. Pieper does not anticipate overnight adoption. "Fraud losses are still less than credit losses," he said, and card issuers' "pain level" remains relatively low. Identicator currently makes its money from law enforcement and banking purposes such as check-cashing.

Hypercom Inc. is also cautious. Albert Irato, president of the Phoenix- based rival of Verifone, has said voice prints are more promising.

"There is no reason you can't do (fingerprinting) technically or operationally," said Hypercom marketing director John Marshall. "Show me the economics."

Mr. Lewis at Verifone predicted "some very newsworthy things in the next couple of months," but he was less certain about ultimate adoption.

"I see it happening in waves over the next one to five years," he said. "I have no crystal ball on when they will crest."

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