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Bio-Key hoping Apple iPhone 5s Touch ID brings biometrics to forefront of consumer minds

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Mike DePasquale in front of a mural at the company's Wall office. He's hoping the new iPhone launch gets more consumers comfortable with the fingerprint scanning technology that BioKey makes.
Mike DePasquale in front of a mural at the company's Wall office. He's hoping the new iPhone launch gets more consumers comfortable with the fingerprint scanning technology that BioKey makes. - (AARON HOUSTON)

Apple Inc. used fingerprint technology to create buzz when it launched the latest version of the iPhone last week.

The reaction may have been strongest in the offices of a software company in Wall.

Bio-Key International has been a player in fingerprint technology — what it calls its biometric identification systems — for decades. The company just needed an event to bring the technology to a mainstream audience.

It's hard to get much bigger than an Apple launch.

"Clearly, we see it as a catalyst for us," CEO Michael DePasquale said. "We've been waiting for these appliances to be out there, and now that will happen. So, all good."

Bio-Key software enables camera technology to accurately record fingerprints. It then connects various devices with databases, making security systems operable.

The company's biometric technology has honed a niche with businesses and large-scale clients, including hospitals, retailers, electronic software companies and governments. But DePasquale has a hunch that Bio-Key's appeal is about to leap into the world of consumers, whom he says are finally frustrated enough with cumbersome passwords that many are ready to ditch them.

"I think we all know that we're overwhelmed by passwords," DePasquale said. "Clearly, they are failing us. We have too many. Not only do we have too many, but we can't remember to differentiate them.

"Six or seven years ago, you may have had 10 passwords to access different accounts," he said. "Today, you're likely to have 30-plus, with social media, with banking, with business and enterprise access."

Passwords, DePasquale admitted, can be secure. The just need to contain eight to 16 characters. And have a mix of upper- and lower-case letters. And also contain numbers. And be changed frequently, while somehow being memorable. And ...

"It's just so inconvenient," DePasquale said.

Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple may have started to change that last week, when it unveiled new iPhone models, including the 5S that has a fingerprint scanner embedded in its home button as an alternative for passwords.

That means "tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of devices that have finger-scanning capability that can now be used to access all kinds of information from our customers," DePasquale said.

Here's one example: Bio-Key's technology is already integrated into IBM's security platform, which is used by companies like AT&T. Customers of AT&T who buy the new iPhone will now have the ability to switch to a fingerprint, rather password-based, system to access their accounts, which DePasquale said opens new avenues for Bio-Key.

DePasquale also sees the rise of mobile banking and wallets, and corresponding reliance on cloud technology, as a growth opportunity for Bio-Key. More customers are using smartphones and tablets to make financial transactions, though security remains a worry. He wants his company to put an end to those fears.

"Even identical twins don't have the same fingerprints," he said.

But at least one expert isn't predicting the death of passwords. Jean Camille Birget, a Rutgers–Camden computer science professor, said passwords, while cumbersome, pose certain advantages over fingerprint scans.

For one, Birget said, passwords have the advantage of being alterable. Fingerprints, while unique to each individual, are permanent, and can be stolen or copied. A thief could manufacture a latex glove woven with someone else's fingerprints, he said.

"When your password isn't trustworthy, you can change your password," he said. "Fingerprints you cannot change."

Birget has researched alternative identification methods, such as graphical passwords where the user selects from distinctly recognizable images, a system that never caught on despite being touted as easier and more secure than alphanumeric passwords.

In the big picture, Birget envisions fingerprinting as an addition, not a replacement, to existing identification methods.

"None of these things are really that safe by themselves, but in combination they are safe," Birget said. "Fingerprints are a good addition."

DePasquale expects a steady, rather than immediate and universal, conversion to finger scanning. And in the case of some older clients, he doesn't expect it will ever catch on.

"But the majority will look for the advantage of security and convenience that the biometrics will provide," he said.

Aside from increased consumer penetration, Bio-Key sees opportunities with large-scale clients — mainly, employers that are required to conduct comprehensive background checks. Likewise, the FBI is expanding its database to maintain such files.

"You can't become a teacher today, or a broker, or a lawyer, without getting fingerprinted and getting background check," DePasquale said.

Investors are speculating on Bio-Key's potential. Its over-the-counter stock, now trading about 33 cents a share, has quadrupled year to date. The profitable company reported 2012 revenue of $3.8 million, up 9 percent from the prior year.

Bio-Key does not disclose forecasts, but DePasquale is confident that a tectonic shift is taking place that positions the company for growth.

"I said 10 years ago this technology would touch our everyday lives. Finally, this technology is touching our everyday lives," he said. "That's really the key, in my opinion, prolific benefit of Apple's announcement. That we are all going to be engaged in some way, shape or form with biometrics at a consumer level."

E-mail to: tomz@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @biztzanki

Write to the Editorial Department at editorial@njbiz.com

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