Now that digital signatures have been granted the same legal status as a document signed with ink, Anonymous Data Corp. is eyeing the opportunity to apply its iris-scan technology.Eyes have always been known as the windows to the soul. And in the rapidly approaching digital age, they could be the key to one's mortal identity.

Now that digital signatures have equal legal status to pen-and-paper signatures, the race is on to provide the best technology to ensure those signing digitally on the dotted line are who they say they are.

As recent as a decade ago, biometric technology-computerized scans of fingerprints, facial features or the iris of the eye-was considered by many as a gimmick found in science fiction movies. Today, a growing number of high-tech companies are promoting such systems as a feasible method of protecting consumers in the digital age.

One such company, Anonymous Data Corp. was started by James Beecham, a pathologist whose aim was to protect sensitive medical data without relying on the tested individual's name, but through use of a biometrics code.

However, the advent of the digital signature age has opened up a new profit opportunity for the Las Vegas-based company.

"It's important to remember several aspects of the new law," Beecham says. "When consumers `opt-in' to use electronic signatures, they would bear the burden of later trying to disprove a document falsely signed electronically. After all, an electronic signature is only as good as the ability of the system to identify the person using it."

Highly effective

At the heart of the technology is a video camera that produces a close-up image of a person's iris-a database that contains 100,000 codes. It has been called the most reliable biometric system of identification other than DNA because the probability of two irises producing the same code has been pegged at about 1 in 10--with 72 zeroes after it.

Consumer activists such as Margot Saunders of the Boston-based National Consumer Law Center have termed biometrics one of the most reliable methods of protecting against identity theft in the digital age.

"None of the laws we now assume to apply to transactions apply anymore. We expect identity theft to skyrocket," she says.

Anonymous Data Corp.'s technology was used in a project in Honduras that enabled HIV-infected women to gain treatment anywhere in the country by means of retinal identification. Beecham says the technology also is applicable to records in the police and judicial systems. "Our court-linked system could serve as a prototype for e-signatures because we first register the consumer based on legal documents and then offer verification".

But some experts believe that application of biometric technology will be limited. Privacy concerns will limit the widespread adoption of biometrics, according to a report by Forrester Research Inc., a Cambridge, Mass.-based research and consulting firm.

"Privacy worries about the misuse of biometric information such as fingerprints and retinal scans will scare away partners and customers and limit biometrics authentication to employees," the report states.

Forrester predicts the most common application of biometrics will be by government agencies and nuclear power plants. "But for the majority of firms, biometrics will remain high-tech gadgets seen only in spy movies," the report concludes.

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