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Army to open high-tech center

by John G. Miller and Jeff Toquinto

STAFF WRITERS

BRIDGEPORT -- What was once just thought of as science fiction could ultimately provide an economic boon for North Central West Virginia.

The Department of Defense confirmed on Tuesday that an interim Biometrics Fusion Center will open soon at a leased building at Benedum Airport.

Lt. Colonel Robert Bollig of the U.S. Army Biometric Management Office in Falls Church, Va., said it's the Army's hope to begin initial occupancy in the "latter part of September," according to reports from his superior, Phil Loranger, director of the office.

According to information supplied by U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd's office, the three- to seven-person office will be working to advance the Army's work in safeguarding top-level computer systems with biometrics, the use of a person's physical traits as computer passwords.

While the initial office is small, speculation is that officials hope to partner the biometrics facility with the FBI's Criminal Justice Identification System in Clarksburg as well as West Virginia University and other area higher education institutions.

The FBI facility has the largest biometric repository -- the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS). Biometrics includes the use of fingerprint recognition as well as iris and retina scans, voice prints, hand and finger geometry, face recognition, keystroke dynamics and wrist vein recognition.

Bollig said in a phone interview Tuesday that it would be "normal speculation" that a massive new facility would require congressional approval and federal funding.

Unlike the FBI, Bollig said the biometrics center would not be a relocation of an existing department. Instead, it would be the development of a new one. He confirmed that plans include building a new facility, but could not comment on its final location or the number of jobs that might be created if funding is made available.

Byrd has led efforts in Congress to provide funding for these new initiatives and in July won conference committee approval of $25 million in the fiscal year 2001 budget to boost the biometrics initiative. That was in addition to $15 million appropriated in this year's budget.

However, additional funding would be required to build a new facility.

Byrd was unavailable for comment Tuesday as he was attending appropriations meetings. But in previous press releases, he has touted biometrics and the need for West Virginia's involvement.

"I have worked to put West Virginia at the forefront of this effort," Byrd wrote in his weekly column of July 5. "This office should provide West Virginia an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a promising technology."

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