About 10% of Purdue Employees Federal Credit Union's 49,000 members have been registered for a security system that reads their fingerprints to verify their identities.

The West Lafayette, Ind., institution is a financial industry pioneer in using biometrics-and that fact illustrates how slowly the technology is advancing and how far it still has to go.

Though a growing number of institutions are looking into using fingerprints, retina scans, and voice recognition to identify customers, observers say these methods will not be mainstream for years.

In Purdue's 18-month-old program, finger scans grant access to kiosks offering services such as cash withdrawals and loan applications. Purdue plans to expand the system to automated teller machines, home banking, card authorizations, and building access, said Gail J. Koehler, vice president of information services.

Another biometrics pioneer in financial services is Intrust Bank in Wichita, Kan. Three hundred fifty employees are enrolled in a year-old voice verification system. A funds transfer application will be in place later this month, and additional functions are expected to be added within a year or two, said Patrick Rooney, assistant vice president of operations.

And Citigroup, First Union Corp. and BankAmerica Corp. are among other financial services companies testing biometrics, according to the research firm Mentis Corp. of Durham, N.C., a subsidiary of Gartner Group. '

Citigroup is using iris recognition technology with selected employees. First Union is evaluating fingerprinting for employee access to computer data. BankAmerica is testing a hand geometry system to control access to buildings.

"Most financial services firms are using biometrics in-house to see how good they are," said Kimberly Harris, an analyst at Mentis. "There are a lot of barriers to consumer use."

Martin Johnson, a BankAmerica security architect, said he envisions banks using biometrics at ATMs to replace personal identification numbers and eliminate fraud. But he said the cost and effort to equip ATMs would slow deployment.

Bruce Fowler, vice president and chief information officer at Langley Federal Credit Union of Hampton, Va., said the $600 million institution is exploring adding voice verification to its telephone system, which now recognizes voice commands.

Mentis predicted that use of biometrics across all industries will increase from 8,550 devices in 1996 to more than 50,000 in 2000. It said the financial industry will not acquire the technology as aggressively as some others.

Financial institutions seem to be well aware of the cost and consumer acceptance hurdles. Only a handful of banking and credit union officials attended a Banking on Biometrics conference in Dallas this month. Vendors dominated the audience of 40. While financial services attendees said they wanted to check out the latest technology, they said they did not plan to implement it soon.

The vendors touted new products, but most could claim only a few banks experimenting with their systems.

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