Company Profile: Upek's Biometric Security System Gets Thumbs Up

Fifteen-digit passwords are becoming as obsolete as the Commodore 64.

Emeryville's Upek Inc. has seen business climb 200 percent this year as its fingerprint identification technology is incorporated into millions of laptops, including ThinkPad computers, flash drives, cell phones and other devices.

Touch a small pad with a fingertip and in less than a second Upek's system will confirm or deny the user, replacing the need to log in with a password, personal identification number or key.

Biometric technology -- using features like the face, eyes or fingerprints for verification -- is quickly finding its way to consumers, as they grapple with more and more complicated passwords and increasing fears that their identity and personal information could be stolen.

"Who you are, what you have, everything is becoming digital and stored on electronic devices," said Maxine Most, principal at Acuity Market Intelligence. "We're relying on these devices to store the most important information that we own, so access to those devices becomes very important."

Initially used mainly by the government, especially for post-Sept. 11, 2001, security, biometric technology has since become cheaper and easier to build into consumer devices.

Upek's main competitor, AuthenTec, said it has 6 million devices in use around the world, mostly in cell phones and computers. And Lenovo, Upek's major customer and maker of ThinkPad notebooks, a product line it recently bought from IBM, said this week that it will sell its millionth notebook equipped with fingerprint technology next month. "The technology is ready for prime time," said Upek CEO Alan Kramer.

After a few false starts during the dot-com days, Upek was launched in March 2004, spinning off from Swiss chipmaker STMicroelectronics and raising $20 million in venture capital.

About three-quarters of its business this year came from integrating its fingerprint sensors into notebook computers, and it saw that segment of its business explode by a factor of 10 this year. Already found in ThinkPad and Sony laptops, it expects to see its fingerprint technology incorporated into two of the three remaining top laptop makers, Hewlett-Packard, Dell and Toshiba, by early next year.

Upek captures a fingerprint on a silicon sensor, which measures the ridges of the finger. The sensors are so precise that they reject the right person only once out of nearly 1,000 times and they accept the wrong person once out of nearly 100,000 tries, Kramer said.

But like other security technologies, it's not completely foolproof, though Kramer said the company is developing the technology to even detect blood flow, sweat and other factors to make the devices harder to hack.

In the future, Kramer envisions a world where fingerprints will replace handwritten signatures to seal a deal. And consumers will be able to buy items from their home computers and cell phones, authorizing a bank transaction with their fingerprint.

"I don't know if it's going to be my grandchildren or great-grandchildren, but people are not going to sign papers to authorize a transaction," Kramer, 43, said.

For now the start-up, which was named one of 2006's technology pioneers by the prestigious World Economic Forum, is focused on finding the right places to market its biometric technology and managing the company as it grows from 45 employees to 100. "We have big ambitions," Kramer said.

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