HIPAA: Replace your password with your face

March 28, 2008

Facial recognition software can speed up logging into your office network and individual programs.

Facial recognition software can speed up logging into your office network and individual programs.

Airports and casinos rely on face-reading computers to tell who’s who. Now the technology is making its way into homes and medical offices. Computer maker Lenovo recently introduced the IdeaPad Y510 laptop that comes with a built-in camera and facial recognition software. Once the computer snaps your photo, it logs you in every time it sees your mug. The software is smart, too. An editor at Laptop Magazine tried to fool the IdeaPad Y510 by trying to log in with a photo, but failed.

You also can install facial recognition software and a web camera on an existing computer. A three-doctor group in Pittsford, NY, called Pediatrics at the Basin has done just that, retrofitting exam-room workstations with a program called FastAccess. Pediatrician Alice Loveys says the software streamlines logging in, although occasionally the computer doesn’t recognize her face, forcing her to type in her user ID and password. “We’re still very happy with it,” says Loveys, a member of the Council on Clinical Information Technology of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

FastAccess can be confused if a user tweaks his hairdo or dons a pair of glasses, notes George Brostoff, CEO of Sensible Vision, the company that makes the software. In that case, a user can get a new photo taken. A change in lighting also may throw off the program. Nevertheless, it still works more than 90 percent of the time, says Brostoff.

Logging in with a traditional user ID and password can pile up lots of minutes, Brostoff says, especially if you count log-ins to individual programs. FastAccess can get you into those as well as the computer itself, too.

One key benefit of FastAccess, Brostoff says, is eliminating the security threat called “tailgating.” That occurs when someone logs into an application and then leaves without logging off, allowing an unauthorized user to gain access. When a computer is equipped with FastAccess, the system locks up whenever the user walks away from the monitor. When the user returns, FastAccess recognizes him again. The program unlocks, and the user can pick up where he left off.

That safeguard initially created a workflow hiccup for doctors and nurses at Pediatrics at the Basin, says Alice Loveys. Whenever she’d step away from an exam-room computer to fetch an instrument or take a patient’s pulse, the group’s EHR would lock up. It would take several annoying seconds for the program to unlock when she returned to the monitor. Sensible Vision eliminated this speed bump by installing a door sensor and connecting it to the computer. Whenever the exam room door is closed, the EHR program remains unlocked whether or not Loveys is in front of the monitor. When the door opens, presumably because a doctor or nurse is leaving the room, the normal lock-up safeguard kicks in.

FastAccess, says Brostoff, was designed with healthcare in mind. It’s common for a doctor and nurse to take turns using a computer in patient care. FastAccess allows them to go back and forth without log-ins while preserving their unique sessions on an EHR-vital-sign entry for a nurse, say, anda physical exam for the doctor.

Brostoff said between 40 and 50 hospitals and physician groups are testing FastAccess. Right now, Sensible Vision markets the software-bundled with web cameras-only to organizations with at least 100 workstations, but Brostoff expects to shortly announce a partnership with another company that will offer the software to small medical practices and the like. Another company called Digi International sells the software bundled with a high-grade web camera, and it’s available from online distributors for between $300 and $350-aprice that might deter a doctor needing to outfit multiple computers.

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