August 16, 2009 By Hilton Collins
Screens that scan your eyes, machines that read images of your hands or face, computers you access with your fingerprint instead of a user name and password -- these were once the stuff of science fiction. But in the real-life IT world, biometric technology -- authenticating users based on their physical characteristics -- has gradually become fact.
Government agencies are using biometrics to enhance security in access control, but this technological endeavor, like most others, also can be applied to save time and effort. And since time and effort equal money, biometric deployments also can produce some nice savings.
Tahlequah, Okla., uses 11 "hand-punch" terminals -- which record user handprints -- to track and manage 129 city employees. The system replaced paper time sheets, according to Sue Stacy, Tahlequah's human resources director.
"It's just awesome. That's all I can say about it. Before, when I did payroll I had to go through all the time sheets and look to see who took a vacation day," she said. Stacy also needed to post vacation time and other time-related information publicly so others could see it. "Now I don't do that. It's all right there for me," she said.
Tahlequah uses Schlage HandPunch 3000 terminals to record employee handprints. The terminal has a flat metal plate with pegs that ergonomically direct the hand for proper placement. When an employee enrolls in the system, he or she places their hand on the plate three times, and the 3-D hand template is registered in the human resources office and associated with a unique identification number. When employees clock in or out for work, they enter the identification number, place their hand on the terminal, and the handprint is verified against the registered template and identification. The verification process takes seconds.
The terminals -- or clocks, as Stacy and others call them -- record when someone clocks in or out. Stacy uses software from NOVAtime to access the data and see who is clocked in or out and for how long. There are no timecards or paper reports involved.
"I can sit here at my computer, and I can pull a time and it tells me whether Joe Smith is at work or not. It shows whether he's punched in or if he's punched out or if he's off that day," Stacy said. "Somebody calls in and says, 'Hey, is Joe here today?' 'Well, I don't know. Let me check.' I can look to see if he's clocked in or out."
Employees also can view their time and attendance history from their work computers, which eliminates the need for them to contact Stacy or her colleagues.
"They have the ability to go in and look at their accrual time -- how much time they have for sick leave or vacation or comp time," she said.
Eight terminals are linked to the city's network, and three remote locations use a dial-up connection to transfer information to the human resources department. Tahlequah deployed the system in 2004. Ed Goss, the city's IT manager, also thinks the technology has spared Tahlequah from laborious, paper-based timekeeping procedures of the past.
"They were doing it by paper and you can imagine -- chaos, confusion, even in a small city, trying to keep a lot of different paper records up-to-date," he said.
In California's San Bernardino County, biometric technology eased the burden on help-desk employees in the Auditor Controller-Recorder Department. Employees touch a fingerprint reader to log on to the network, which eliminates the need for them to remember passwords. This has reduced by 90 percent the number of "lost password" calls to the department's IT help desk.