Biometrics Puts a Finger on Point of Sales

By Sharon Gaudin | Posted January 26, 2006

You may have heard about biometrics in terms of security, but it also adds a new level of efficiency and convenience, too. Still, it might be hard to imagine exactly how that might work in your business. Retailers are a prime market for using biometric devices, as is any company where multiple employees share the same computer.

For example, a cashier arrives at his job in the morning. Just as he starts his shift, he puts his index finger down on a pad, logging into the system. At the end of his day, if his cash drawer comes up short, his manager will know exactly who had been running that particular register -- and who's accountable for the loss.

For the cashier, it's one less user ID and password that he'll have to remember -- and in the digital age, that's saying something.

No longer only a cool gadget in James Bond movies or futuristic technology only used at the NSA, biometrics seem to be finding a new role -- a new place in the business world. Best known as security tools, biometrics, like the fingerprint scanner, are gaining respect for their convenience. And that may be what finally pushes biometrics to catch fire -- something that has been predicted for years but has failed to actually happen.

There has always been a lot of talk about biometrics being the 'next hot thing' in technology, replacing hard-to-remember and even-harder-to-secure passwords. But despite the magic-eight-ball predictions, most companies have stuck like glue to the user ID and password.

Buying into a technology, however, may be more financially palatable if it's not only good for security but will make employers and employee's lives easier -- and more efficient. And considering that the price of biometrics is coming down, the time for a real buy-in finally may be here.

And that buy-in, no matter how slow in coming, made Jonathan Penn's Top 10 Predictions list for 2006.

''I absolutely see the shift happening this year,'' says Penn, a principal analyst at Forrester Research, an industry analyst firm based in Cambridge, Mass. ''Biometrics are going mainstream. In many cases, people choose biometrics their convenience features rather than security reasons. It's evident in both enterprise deployments and point-of-care, retail and restaurant deployments at the register.''

And that's exactly what they're doing at three different ski mountains owned by the Park City, Utah-based American Skiing Company, which employs several hundred people and runs seven ski resorts, including Sunday River in Maine, Attitash in New Hampshire and Mount Snow in Vermont.

''As managers, we don't have to maintain user name and password information in the system,'' says Carol Boden, vice-president of information technology operations at American Skiing Company. ''The cashiers don't have to remember a user name and password. It's more secure because no one else can know their password if they don't have one. And it's convenient, quick and accurate.''

Boden says American Skiing uses fingerprint devices from Digital Persona, Inc., a Redwood City, Calif.-based company. The fingerprint-based authentication solution is built into Digital Dining's point-of-sale system

''Other points-of-sale still use the user name and password method of gaining access, which makes it easy for us to see how efficient this is,'' says Boden. ''Oh, this is very quick for the employees. All they have to do is walk up and put their fingers on it. They don't have to worry about miss-keying their name or their password. And we also don't have to go through the password-expiration drill every so many days.''

The fingerprint authentication software reduces the chance of buddy check-ins, along with stolen, borrowed or forgotten passwords or card keys.

And that's especially helpful when managing a constantly rotating group of employees. With the change of season comes a new crew of employees, and Boden says the fingerprint scanning technology enables them to do a one-time registration that takes less than 10 seconds. Once in the system, an employee's fingerprint provides access across the entire network at all stations.

Boden says the fingerprint technology is saving the company money and managerial time. And it's making their registers more secure.

''I think it's very promising,'' she adds. ''Even with our limited sample here of a couple hundred cashiers across the organization, we've had great success with it. It's a rare security solution that the employees appreciate. They love it. They think it's neat, and it's quick and accurate. They don't have to worry about someone else logging in as them. I don't think that occurred very often, but now they don't have to worry. And we are assured, accountability wise, that this is the right person being held accountable.''

Business Solutions
''We're at the point where this solves a real business problem,'' says Vance Bjorn, chief technology officer of Digital Persona. ''It's beyond James Bond movies and government border control.''

Biometrics products are being used today at banks to identify customers, at healthcare facilities to identify patients and on an increasing number of desktops and laptops in the corporate enterprise. Part of what's driving the adoption is the shrinking price tag. Bjorn says the cost of an overall solution has come down 50 percent to 60 percent over the last several years.

Gerry Gebel, a senior analyst at the Burton Group, an industry analyst firm based in Salt Lake City, Utah, says while the hardware prices are coming down, there still are plenty of other associated costs.

''There's still a fair amount of cost associated with implementation,'' says Gebel. ''You have to integrate the biometric product with the software you're trying to protect. There's user training, training of the support staff and the help desk people and that's independent of the cost of the device. Because fingerprint readers aren't that common, you have to teach people how to place their finger on the device, how long to leave it there and how clean their hands need to be. What happens if it's cold or their fingers are really dry or maybe it's damp? There are a lot of factors to consider when these things aren't very commonplace.''

Still, you need to factor in accuracy, performance and efficiency savings adds Gebel.

''At some other places you see a cashier swiping a card every time they make a sale,'' he notes. ''There's a lot more wear and tear to that than with a biometric device. Worse yet is punching in your user ID and password to get onto the system. If you've got a long line of customers, that's a pretty significant effect on employee productivity. All of these factors are weighed when the folks at American Skiing view the different possibilities for how to best handle their point of sale terminals.''

Adapted from esecurityplanet.com.

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