The Smart Bar Code Has Arrived

Sometimes the smartest solutions are the most ubiquitous. And there is nothing more commonplace than the good old bar code. Its uses are endless, its durability is legendary, and its acceptance is universal.

But when identity verification became a burning issue after September 11, 2001?eight of the 11 hijackers used false documents to pass through airport security?bar-code technology wasn't the solution thrust into the spotlight. What would one expect? It didn't have the sex appeal of facial recognition or the pizzazz of the myriad other biometrics that exploded onto the scene only to die inglorious deaths months later. And when the bar code was paired against its most obvious rival, the smart card, the ensuing debates belittled the high-security attributes of bar-code technology.

We ran a story in our September 2002 issue discussing the possible use of bar code technology as a high-security identity solution (?Has the Time Come to Require Proof of Identity?? by Ken Braunstein, p.74). That story pointed out that encrypted text, biometrics, photos and other identifying information could be cheaply and safely stored in a PDF 417 bar code?a publicly available, two-dimensional code standard. This bar code can store up to 1.7KB of encrypted data that resides in associated arrays that cannot be read if scrubbed and changed, so it is almost impossible to counterfeit. The article emphasized cost as a strong benefit of the PDF 417 solution; while smart cards range from $6 to $10 per card, bar code cards cost around 35 cents apiece. In addition, most facilities are already are equipped with bar code readers, so they would not have to withstand the additional cost of adding new reader technology.

The article's message seemed to fall on deaf ears. In fact, we received several letters decrying its claims as old-fashioned. More than 20 months later, though, people like John Barclay are having the last laugh. The chairman and CEO of Laser Data Command Inc. in Minneapolis, MN, lobbied hard to prove that his PDF 417-based PassPro' card technology could meet the requirements of high-security applications. Now his company goes head to head with its smart card competitors, and in many instances has won.

?When 2-D bar code was developed, the options of storing information and the method of instantaneously retrieving that information made for a perfect fit with high-security environments,? said Barclay. ?Our system captures and verifies the authenticity of the person's ID, captures their biometrics, photographs their luggage for 100 percent luggage verification, and then stores it on a tamperproof 2D bar code that the passengers carry with them throughout their traveling experience. At each checkpoint, they simply present the boarding pass to security personnel. The boarding pass is scanned, and all the information, including their picture, is displayed on either a handheld scanner or monitor, confirming their true identity.?

There are definite applications for both bar code and smart card technologies. Both have proven themselves in high-security government and corporate environments. It is up to end users to decide how legacy issues and cost factors will enter into their ultimate decision. What's old may be new again.

If you have any questions or comments for Steve Lasky regarding this issue or any other, please e-mail him at