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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Need Cash? Put Your Eye Up to the ATM

HOUSTON -- Jordan Pearce stood before the Bank United cash machine and stared at a blinking light for perhaps three seconds, waiting while a hidden camera scanned his eyeball. Moments later Pearce pocketed $40 and departed. What makes the transaction unusual is that Pearce, 18, didn't have an ATM card.

Instead, he simply allowed the camera mounted in the top of the cash machine to examine his iris f the colored part of the eye f and check its characteristics against an earlier scan stored in Bank United's iris database. Once the match was made, Pearce was free to use the machine. He needed neither ATM card nor identification number

The cash machines at Bank United, Texas's largest financial institution, have pushed the science of biometrics f identifying people by their unique physical characteristics f to a new frontier, transforming what began as a James Bond fantasy into everyday commerce. Bank United's use of iris scanning, which is harmless to the eye, represents the first time a large private company has tried to use biometrics as a consumer tool.

Whether it's iris scanning, fingerprints, voice prints, face geometry or signature authentication, biometrics are rapidly becoming a cheaper, easier and more secure way to conduct business.

Uneasiness about yielding information about one's body has prompted some to reject biometrics, while libertarians have questioned biometrics' potential danger to citizens' right to privacy.

"Who's entitled to gather this information?" Barry Steinhardt, an associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union, asked. "Can there be a secondary use? What is the form of consent, and is it truly voluntary?"

"The paramount problem is that the technology has been developing at light speed," Steinhardt said, "while the law has developed not at all."

The biometrics industry is concerned enough about what it calls the "Big Brother Factor" to have designed a set of principles for companies to avoid misuse of biometrics information. Their association has also urged adoption of legal standards to restrict public institutions' use of the data." When new technologies become available, you want to ensure they are not going to be proliferated in the wrong way," said Rob Van Naarden, president of Sensar, the company that builds the iris-scanning machines.

A few years ago, the use of biometrics was limited to those government agencies and security firms that distrusted photo IDs and had enough money to buy something else. However, "as the cost has come down, we are looking at wide-scale deployment. That is just starting now," said Paul Collier, director of operations for Identicator Technology, the leading manufacturer in fingerprint biometrics.

Different biometrics use different body characteristics, but the principle is fundamentally the same. Using a camera, sensor or other device, a person's physical trait is digitized, encrypted and filed away in a database.

Done properly, such a system is virtually fail-safe, the industry contends. Technologies cannot be reverse engineered because of encryption and because biometrics sensors expect subtle differences caused by dirty hands or widened pupils. Specialists say machines would flag a fabricated biometrics that exactly matched the database template.

And identification is foolproof. PenOp Inc. has more than 30 ways to authenticate signatures, including unforgeable characteristics like acceleration, pen pressure and pen angle.

IriScan, the Marlton, New Jersey firm that patented Bank United's iris technology, uses 266 different characteristics of a person's iris. IriScan is fond of saying that it is "better than DNA" because it distinguishes between identical twins, whose irises are different, though their DNA is the same.

In the near future, companies believe users will also be able to authenticate their identities in Internet transactions with banks, stockbrokers or anyone else who maintains a biometrics database.

"That's the second level," said Collier, and "down the road, you'll see biometrics in everything from home alarms to safes, automobiles, gun cabinets and cable television channels f biometrics lends itself very well to parental controls."

John Woodward, a privacy attorney and adviser to the Biometrics Industry Association, acknowledges the need for safeguards, including laws restricting the movement of biometrics databases. "If you think of them as mailing lists, you don't want them to be sold to other companies," Woodward said.