Signature verification is getting more sophisticated, with systems that make it practical to measure not just the appearance of a signature, but unique characteristics of the signer.
So-called biometric signature software can measure the angle of the pen, the force exerted on the tip, and the speed of writing.
Because of consumers' comfort with signing their names, the method is more likely to be accepted than other biometric identification alternatives, according to a 1998 study by Mentis Corp. of Durham, N.C., a research unit of Gartner Group.
Due to come to market next year is Smartpen from LCI Computer Group of the Netherlands. The pen has sensors that measure unique signature characteristics, encrypt the digital data, and transmit it via infrared or radio frequency to a computer, where LCI software compares it to a template for verification.
The pen costs $100 to $300, depending on the strength of the transmitter, said Sam Asseer, LCI president and chief executive officer. Unlike earlier versions of the technology, the pen is wireless and not bulky, writes in real ink, and can be used with electronic and paper transactions.
LCI is talking to several banks and credit card companies about using Smartpen.
For the past year, Chase Manhattan Corp. has used a biometric signature device created by Communication Intelligence Corp. to identify applicants for Government National Mortgage Association loans. Chase said it processes 2,000 to 3,000 such applications a month.
Bruce Fowler, vice president and chief information officer at Langley Federal Credit Union, Hampton, Va., said the speed at which he signs differs, possibly making the biometric method unreliable.
Martin Johnson, a security architect with BankAmerica Corp., said he saw limited use for signature dynamics beyond point of sale terminals.
BankAmerica is exploring other forms of biometrics, such as hand geometry to secure physical locations, voice for telephone banking, and fingerprints for Web identification and workstation access, according to the Mentis study.
Breaking into the banking industry is hard, said Dennis Quiggle, vice president for marketing at Cyber Sign Inc. of San Jose, Calif., which offers biometric signature software. Banks' internal systems are very entrenched and its consumer products are very diverse, he said.
Cyber Sign has one bank client. Westernbank Puerto Rico, a $2.2 billion- asset institution in Mayaguez, said it planned to pilot the signature verification system in its branches this month. Eventually, the bank would expand the system to automated teller machines and home banking.
"We're marketing it as something convenient for customers for both security and ease of use," said Hector Vazquez, data processing manager.