Monday, August 14, 2006

Fingerprint sensors improve security of PCs

AFTER HAVING been used for decades as an important tool in catching bad guys, fingerprints are now coming to the fore in preventing identity theft. That is, not letting the bad guys get a chance to steal at all.

Two privately held companies in the Bay Area have made names for themselves in using your fingerprints to protect your identity and your assets. UPEK Inc. of Emeryville produces the underlying technology that senses the three-dimensional ridges on your digits and packages that information for use in laptops and other devices.

For instance, its customer, San Francisco-based Pay By Touch, uses UPEK know-how to make payment systems inviolate.

UPEK's revenues topped $30 million in 2005. In July, UPEK won recognition by AlwaysOn as one of its Top 100 Private Company award winners. Pay By Touch also was named to the list.

Pay By Touch was formed by the acquisition of Oakland company Indivos Corp. by San Francisco-based Solidus Networks Inc. in 2003. The company has raised about $240 million in investment capital and has a valuation of over $3 billion dollars already.

While Pay By Touch is starting to market a thumb reader to gain access to your desktop computer, its bigger business has been selling fingerprint-sensing scanners to retailers for their checkout counters.

Under the name Indivos, its technology was first deployed in Berkeley at High Tech Burrito in 1998 and in Seattle's Thriftway supermarket in 2002.

After its 2004-2005 adoption by grocer Piggly Wiggly in South Carolina, "a number of national chains have deployed our technology, but none of them has started here in the Bay Area," said Caroline McNally, executive vice president of branding.

The customer who pays by pressing a thumb to the reader need not carry a card. "The consumer can add whatever payment type she prefers, such as Albertsons preferred card, checking account number or debit, etc.," McNally said.

Acuity Market Intelligence Editor Maxine Most commended the San Francisco company, Pay By Touch, which has more than 700 employees.

"It's costing merchants lots of money to process cards. Pay By Touch is the only (biometric) company that has really penetrated the consumer marketplace."

Most recently lost her own laptop. "I didn't worry about the laptop because I could replace it. I didn't worry about the data because I had backed it up. I was worried about identity theft. So now I'm going to set it up so I have a thumb sensor. In the next few years, fingerprint sensors will be standard on PDAs and laptops," Most predicted.

Business Writer Francine Brevetti can be reached at or (510) 208-6416