Big Brother Inc.

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PHOTO-ILLUSTRATION FOR TIME BY AARON GOODMAN

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Government contracts, as they have in the past, could promote consumer product development too, especially as people get more comfortable with the technology. And that means making them foolproof and fiendproof. Cross Match's fingerprint Authorizer, for instance, has inspired its designers to anticipate an underworld market in Authorizer-equipped cell phones being operated with lopped-off fingers. "No system would fly if part of your anatomy is threatened and is necessary to secure what could be substantial assets," says Scott. So the sensor in the phone doesn't merely read a static fingerprint. It also looks for proof of life — blood flow, tissue elasticity and capillary structure. It also uses an anxiety index being developed by the University of Michigan medical school to measure stress-induced, minute changes in capillaries and sweat glands. "If someone puts a gun to your head, the transaction won't occur, and people will not bother to put guns to people's heads because they won't get paid for it," says Scott.

Eventually, he believes, pocket biometric devices will replace credit and ATM cards and will even dispense with notaries public and those time-consuming face-to-face real-estate closings. Personal and biometric data, says Scott, would be transmitted via cell phone to a cybervault maintained by a financial-service company. If its computer decided everything was in order, the transaction would go through. Certainly the privacy issue will rear its head again, but, as has happened with Internet transactions, if consumers are confident in the system and it offers convenience, those fears won't be fatal to growth.

On a more down-to-earth level, the Authorizer is being considered as an optional feature by at least one car manufacturer, according to Cross Match officials. Besides thwarting thieves, it could be programmed to prevent your 17-year-old from going faster than, say, 55 m.p.h. by activating a speed limiter and to play dead if your 14-year-old had the bright idea to get behind the wheel.

The notion of a cashless economy facilitated by databanks of digitized body parts is still kind of far out. But then, so are most things about Cross Match. The company was founded in 1996 by Scott, a medical ultrasound specialist, and two fellow engineers turned garage inventors, Jim Davis, who worked on the engine of the SR-71 Blackbird at Lockheed, and Ellis Betensky, who improved Vivitar zoom lenses and pioneered computer-aided design for cameras.

At the time, the FBI's Criminal Justice Information System (CJIS) facility in Clarksburg, W.Va., was scanning its vast collection of ink-and-paper fingerprint cards into a digital database that could be searched by computer. The Cross Match founders spotted an empty niche for light, rugged, relatively inexpensive live-scan fingerprint machines. Borrowing $250,000 from relatives and friends, they came up with a 23-lb., $10,000 optical scanner that produced high-resolution, forensic-quality print images. It could fit in a backpack, and its calibration was not thrown off by jarring from a squad car or humvee. In 1997 the three partners brought in Ted Johnson, a retired Paine Webber executive, to be CEO and chief fund raiser. "They really took the industry by storm," says Brian Gesuale, vice president for technology research at Piper Jaffray, an investment-banking firm based in Minneapolis, Minn.

By 2002 Cross Match reported revenues of $25 million. It now employs 165 people to make print scanners of different sizes. Even Martha Stewart noticed. "It's a new machine," she told Barbara Walters in November. "You don't have to get that ink all over your fingers."

After 9/11, the FBI and the military snapped up Cross Match scanners for deployment in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay to fingerprint al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters. Those prints, along with thousands of unidentified ones lifted from uncovered safe houses around the globe and from arrests made by allies, were fed into a classified terrorist-fingerprint database at the FBI's West Virginia fingerprinting facility. Cross Match scanners were sent to Iraq to book captured terrorists, insurgents and Saddam Hussein. (Saddam was annoyed, according to agents posted to Iraq. "This is how you treat criminals!" he is said to have protested between printing and mug shots. "That's right," an agent replied. "Now turn sideways.")

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