Ski Resorts Put their Finger on Security

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A cashier arrives at his job in the morning. Just as he starts his shift,he puts his index finger down on a pad, logging into the system. At theend of his day, if his cash drawer comes up short, his manager will knowexactly who had been running that particular register -- and who'saccountable for the loss.

For the cashier, it's one less user ID and password that he'll have toremember -- and in the digital age, that's saying something.

No longer only a cool gadget in James Bond movies or futuristictechnology only used at the NSA, biometrics seem to be finding a new role-- a new place in the corporate world. Best known as security tools,biometrics, like the fingerprint scanner, are starting to gain somerespect for their convenience. And that may be what finally pushesbiometrics to catch fire -- something that has been predicted for yearsbut has failed to actually happen. There has always been a lot of talkabout biometrics being the 'next hot thing' in technology, replacinghard-to-remember and even-harder-to-secure passwords. But despite theEight-Ball predictions, most companies have stuck like glue to the userID and password.

Buying into a technology, however, may be more financially palatable ifit's not only good for security but will make users' lives easier -- andmore efficient. And considering that the price of biometrics is comingdown, the time for a real buy-in finally may be here.

And that buy-in, no matter how slow in coming, made Jonathan Penn's Top10 Predictions list for 2006.

''I absolutely see the shift happening this year,'' says Penn, aprincipal analyst at Forrester Research, an industry analyst firm basedin Cambridge, Mass. ''Biometrics are going mainstream. In many cases,biometrics are selected for their user convenience features rather thansecurity reasons. It's evident in both enterprise deployments andpoint-of-care, retail and restaurant deployments at the register.''

And that's exactly what they're doing at three different ski mountainsowned by the Park City, Utah-based American Skiing Company, which employsseveral hundred people and runs seven ski resorts, including Sunday Riverin Maine, Attitash in New Hampshire, and Mount Snow in Vermont.

''We, as managers, don't have to maintain user name and passwordinformation in the system,'' says Carol Boden, vice president ofinformation technology operations at American Skiing Company. ''Thecashiers don't have to remember a user name and password. It's moresecure because no one else can know their password if they don't haveone. And it's convenient, quick and accurate.''

Boden says American Skiing is using fingerprint devices from DigitalPersona, Inc., a Redwood City, Calif.-based company. Thefingerprint-based authentication solution is built into Digital Dining's point-of-sale system

''Other points-of-sale still use the user name and password method of gaining access so it's easy for us to see how efficient this is,'' saysBoden. ''Oh, this is very quick for the users. All they have to do iswalk up and put their fingers on it. They don't have to worry aboutmiskeying their name or their password. And we also don't have to gothrough the password-expiration drill every so many days.''

The fingerprint authentication software reduces the chance of buddycheck-ins, along with stolen, borrowed or forgotten passwords or cardkeys.

And that's especially helpful when managing a constantly rotating groupof employees. With the change of season comes a new crew of employees andBoden says the fingerprint scanning technology enables them to do aone-time registration that takes less than 10 seconds. Once in thesystem, an employee's fingerprint provides access across the entirenetwork at all stations.

Boden says the fingerprint technology is saving the company money andmanagerial time. And it's making their registers more secure.

''I think it's very promising,'' she adds. ''Even with our limited sample here of a couple hundred cashiers across the organization, we've had great success with it. It's a rare security solution that is appreciated by the users. They love it. They think it's neat and it'squick and accurate. They don't have to worry about someone else loggingin as themselves. I don't think that occurred very often but they don'thave to worry. And we are assured, accountability wise, that this is the right person being held accountable.''

Business Solutions

''We're at the point where this solves a real business problem,'' saysVance Bjorn, chief technology officer of Digital Persona. ''It's beyondJames Bond movies and government border control.''

Biometrics products are being used today at banks to identify customers,at health care facilities to identify patients, and on an increasingnumber of desktops and laptops in the corporate enterprise. Part ofwhat's driving the adoption is the shrinking price tag. Bjorn says thecost of an overall solution has come down 50 percent to 60 percent overthe last several years.

Gerry Gebel, a senior analyst at the Burton Group, an industry analystfirm based in Salt Lake City, Utah, says while the hardware prices arecoming down, there still are plenty of other associated costs.

''There's still a fair amount of cost associated with implementation,''says Gebel. ''You have to integrate the biometric product with thesoftware you're trying to protect. There's user training, training of thesupport staff and the help desk people and that's independent of the costof the device. Because fingerprint readers aren't that common, you haveto teach people how to place their finger on the device, how long toleave it there and how clean their hands need to be. What happens if it'scold or their fingers are really dry or maybe it's damp? There's a lot offactors to consider when these things aren't very commonplace.''

Accuracy, performance and efficiency savings also need to be factored in,though, adds Gebel.

''At some other places you see a cashier swiping a card every time theymake a sale,'' he notes. ''And those cards wear out. There's a lot morewear and tear to that than with a biometric device. It looks cumbersometo me every time I'm standing in line at Starbucks or whatever store isusing that method. Worse yet is when you have to punch in your user IDand password to get onto the system... If you've got a long line ofcustomers, that's a pretty significant effect on employee productivity.All of these factors are weighed when the folks at American Skiing viewthe different possibilities for how to best handle their point of saleterminals.''

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