Biometrics in the Banks with a Pen that IDs Fingerprint

Old-fashioned handwriting is new again. The business world now faces the prospect of a pen that will not work unless convinced of the author's identification-that the hand doing the writing is actually the hand that's supposed to be there. It does this by reading fingerprints.

This latest device from the James Bond world of biometrics made its debut in Paris a few months ago at the CARTES trade show, attracting a good deal of interest from banks and others interested in classified and sensitive document security, says Scott Bechtel, a spokesman for the Michigan-based developer of the "smart" pen. But all indications show it's still pretty early in the game. The firm says it has potential clients trying the pen, including financial players, but would not say who. As of yet there are no paying customers.

But for $250 a pop with free basic software, the fingerprint pen is certainly affordable. The way it works is both clever and pretty simple. It is attached to a USB cable that plugs into a computer terminal, and the pen itself looks like an oversized Mont Blanc that's just swallowed a Triscuit-providing a convenient place for the writer's index finger to rest. The index finger provides a fingerprint to be read by the scanner in the pen. The fingerprint's then matched to a template held by the pen owner.

Bechtel mentions the pen is easily supported by a smart card template, which means a bank for instance could then say they don't even retain fingerprints on a database. The customer has their fingerprint scanned on a smart card; the smart card goes into a reader in synch with the smart pen, the pen scans the fingerprint and makes a match with the smart card, and bingo the payment is ready to clear, the check ready to cash.

Still, try to design a marketing campaign that even mentions smart cards, which makes anyone who follows American financial technology groan, and then asks customers to give up their fingerprint.

Make it for a check cashing business, and eyebrows are going to raise about making the poor and the immigrants enroll in a system that exempts others.