HUNTSVILLE, Alabama — Forget the key card to your office building? Just wave your hand at the door, and you’re in. “You don’t have to stop at a station. Nobody checks your ID. You just walk through,” explains Clemson-educated physicist Joel Burcham of his new Huntsville company called IDair.

IDair makes a machine that Burcham says can photographically capture a fingerprint from as far away as six meters in enough detail to match against a database. Add facial and iris-recognition technology, Burcham said, and you have the basis for a good biometrics system that can control access to any building or room within a building.

Who needs this level of security? “Sooner, rather than later, we’re all going to need it,” Burcham said in a recent interview at his office at Huntsville’s HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology.

HudsonAlpha, known for human genome and other biological research, gave Burcham a desk for his startup company – “one desk,” he said – because Burcham plans to expand to latent print imaging, a process that involves biological questions of the kind routinely investigated at HudsonAlpha.

Currently, IDair’s customers are military. The system can be used, for example, to tell the difference between friendly locals and potential terrorists while soldiers stay safe behind blast walls.

But the future lies in commercial use. A 24-hour fitness center chain is beta-testing the system now as a way to stop access key sharing by friends or roommates, he said. Ultimately, Burcham said, the vision is that “when you walk into Target and run the items you want to buy across the checkout counter, you aren’t going to have to pull out your wallet or dig out your credit card, which is easily stolen and getting easier to steal every day.”

How does the IDair unit work? Burcham says it’s closer to the way satellites process ground images than the way Photoshop refines our vacation pictures. “There is a little bit of pattern recognition,” he said, “but a lot of it is different ways of sharpening the image … a lot of edge detection, things like that.”

Using image processing means there’s no need for the subject to touch the scanner to get a reading. That eliminates problems associated with oil or dirt on the finger. The basic IDair machine now, which costs under $2,000, processes one finger’s print. That’s good enough to get into a building, when added to iris or face-recognition software, but ironically it isn’t good enough to make a commercial transaction. Four fingers is the standard for that level of identification, he said.

Burcham understands the privacy concerns raised by fingerprint capture. His systems are not connected to major databases such as the FBI’s, he said, so there is no chance you will be screened for outstanding arrest warrants, for example, when you enter a building using the IDair system.

“What realistically happens is you’re an employee of a company,” Burcham said. “The company wants to put one of these devices on the door. You enroll in the system right there and then. They are not connected to anywhere else. You give your prints to the system, and they are collected on the system.”

It’s the security of the fingerprint database that concerns privacy experts such as Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “There are so many steps where a (digital) fingerprint can leak,” Tien said.

Tien said electronic fingerprints can be like Social Security numbers. He calls them “coat hangers” on which a lot of identifying information can be hung. In other words, with a Social Security number, you can find out many other things about someone. Fingerprints could be same way, he said, and “someone else could use it to pretend to be me.”

“Yes, it can be abused,” Burcham agreed. “Anything can be abused. The point is, are there restrictions in place to not abuse it?” The answer with IDair is yes, he said. “But what it’s going to come down to is: Do you want to go through that door? Do you want to buy something with Amazon?”

IDair is a spin-off of Advanced Optical Systems, and Burcham said two of the company’s officers are investors in the new company, which has three employees and an intern today. It will grow soon, he said. The company, which has a website at, will seek a second round of financing soon, Burcham said, and investor interest is welcome.

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