Exclusive Q&A: Robert LaPenta on Merging Viisage-Identix, Where Biometrics Is Headed

Jan. 24, 2006
Former L-3 cofounder on de-fragmenting the industry, why fingerprints are better than facial

L-3 co-founder (and founder of L-1 Investment Partners) Robert LaPenta recently made his move into the position as chairman of Viisage and then successfully negotiated a plan where Viisage and Identix would merge, creating one of the largest biometrics and authentication firms in the world, with himself at the helm.

It was less than a year ago when SIW editor Geoff Kohl and LaPenta discussed the direction the biometrics industry could take in the future, and now LaPenta is shaping that industry. To bring security professionals up to speed on this fast-changing industry, SecurityInfoWatch.com again picked up the phone and caught up with LaPenta shortly after the merger to get his thoughts on what the merger means and what the biometrics industry looks like.

It was only seven months ago when you were on the phone with us, explaining that the biometrics industry could use some unification and stabilization and it seems that you've been busy creating some unification. When did this master plan start?

It actually started when I decided to leave L-3 and do something in this space. My plan was to build the multi-modal biometric company. What I was seeing is that there was a lot of good technology, but not a lot of money being invested, and not a lot of good management either.

Why now?

Everything is coming together at the right time. There were some companies specializing just in the commercial space, but as far as companies with a broad footprint, there weren't many that had both commercial security and homeland security. Identix and Viisage, for example, really don't have a lot of overlap. We really span just about all of the technologies now.

Can you briefly give us an overview of how these companies operate in the biometrics space?

Viisage is primarily a document solutions company. I think they lead in the document authentication marketplace. When you go to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get your license, they say, "Show me the documents that proves you are who you say you are." Viisage's technology can determine if those documents are authentic. The company spends a lot of its focus on the drivers' license bureaus, especially since there is going to be a digital photo and fingerprint with the Real ID program. The company's technology is used on about 35 million documents per year, while Identix does not have anything there in that market. I'd say that Viisage owns 100 percent of the passport market. By being involved in that market already, we can bring Identix in to sell their technology to that market. In terms of facial recognition, both are in the market. Viisage is known for speed; Identix is known for accuracy. We want to be able to put those qualities together.

You're deeper in the biometrics market than you've ever been before. How about a quick assessment of the available technologies?

I think the AFIS (automatic fingerprint identification system) and the non-AFIS fingerprint technology is going to dominate our market for the foreseeable future. Product costs are coming down and accuracy is already there.

After that, I think iris and facial biometrics are going to run neck-and-neck. I think we'll see iris recognition making gains in the access control market, and the facial recognition will be used in other identity solutions. We'll see cameras that are able check the iris without being invasive, because the iris is easier to read. The facial recognition technology will be holding down the market for passports and driver's licenses, and I think we'll see it used in elections, as well.

But fingerprints are simply more accurate and less intrusive. With facial, you can have issues of the angle of recording, the lighting, and the change of a person over time. You can't wear fake eye lenses and fool a fingerprint.

What's happening in terms of R&D?

Viisage is spending money in developing its facial algorithms. We're focusing on increasing the ability with skin textures and processing speeds. Identix has been heavily involved in AFIS and IBIS (a mobile technology for fingerprint and facial recognition that's been well-adopted in the law enforcement marketplace). There are major development prospects for both companies. Identix brings five million lines of software to the table.

What does the merger of Identix and Viisage mean in terms of the government biometrics projects?

Both companies are already in the DoD's Common Access Card program, and we think we're both well-placed for the TWIC (Transportation Worker Identification Credential) program, as well as the HazMat screening.