The eyes have it

House office signs on iris scanning

Lynne Richardson, office administrator at the House Office of the Legislative Counsel, has a Panasonic PrivateID Iris Scanner to logon to her computer in the office.

(Washington Technology photo by Henrik G. de Gyor)

Last month, staff members in the House Office of Legislative Counsel began signing on to their network by gazing into iris-recognition cameras atop their computers.

Lynne Richardson, the office administrator, said the technology could have averted a temporary shutdown after Sept. 11. "We weren't able to work" when buildings were evacuated, she said. "It was kind of a disaster for us."

Members of Congress wanted to introduce bills for everything from emergency funding to the USA Patriot Act, but the counsel's staff had no computers on which to draft the bills except PCs at home or old systems from storage.

We had people sort of picking up laptops wherever they could" to furnish temporary office space in downtown Washington, Richardson said. The computers and the legislative information in them were not secured, and one was stolen, she said.

Things have changed. After a four-month pilot, the office has become the first in Congress to adopt biometric access. They bought 54 licenses for SAF2000 biometric security software from SAFLink Corp. of Bellevue, Wash., plus 108 Panasonic Authenticam iris-recognition cameras that use an algorithm from Iridian Technologies Inc. of Moorestown, N.J.

The office is slowly adding more users to the system but will have to upgrade all its desktop computers and migrate from Microsoft Windows NT to Windows 2000 to use the Panasonic cameras, which connect through a Universal Serial Bus port.

Richardson's office had tried SAFLink a couple of years before, but the earlier cameras had to be held up by the users, and that "was aggravating," she said. Even so, it seemed less cumbersome than changing passwords every 90 days.

"It got to the point where no one was remembering their passwords," Richardson said.
The office ran a second pilot in January before negotiating the $36,000 deal for hardware and software.

A SAF2000 server stores users' biometric templates and confirms their identities. Because the House has a remote login system, it doesn't matter whether users connect from home or in the office.

"We bought [biometrics] mostly to secure files and to keep us from having to change passwords and all that baloney," Richardson said.

Two other federal organizations recently adopted biometrics to secure their buildings and systems.

The Defense Department last month awarded KPMG Consulting Inc. of McLean, Va., a task order under the General Service Administration's Information Technology Omnibus Procurement to embed a fingerprint recognition algorithm in the department's Common Access smart card. SAFLink is one of four subcontractors.

The Energy Department's Savannah River nuclear site in Georgia also recently signed an agreement to buy the same system for building and network access that Richardson's office is using.

Radian Inc. of Alexandria, Va., sold the SAF2000 system to the nuclear plant for about $10,000, said Matt Shannon, spokesman for SAFLink's federal group.

PCs require at least Windows 98 plus a USB port to run the SAF2000 software and cameras.

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