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"The companies that benefit the most are those with some legislative mandate behind them," said Steven Gish, senior research analyst at investment firm Roth Capital Partners.
Within the technology industry, executives say legislation is just one part of the equation. In today's confusing environment, they say it helps to be creative in proposing solutions to meet the needs of the Department of Homeland Security.
Unisys saw one such opportunity when the agency's Transportation Security Administration began hiring some 50,000 screeners for major U.S. airports, which number more than 400. The longtime government contractor proposed technologies to link various systems, including X-ray equipment and metal detectors, at the airports.
Through backroom negotiations, including partnerships with two competitors for the contract, Unisys became the transportation agency's primary technology integrator. Its prize: a deal worth at least $1 billion.
"We won because we understood the mission and addressed the problem in the best way," said Greg Baroni, president of the global public sector for Unisys.
Even when a company wins a contract with technology that appears to fit congressional needs on paper, it must often deal with unrealistic expectations. Identix had to overcome hype and misunderstandings about so-called biometric technologies when pitching its Live Scan systems, which are used to examine handprints at inspection points at U.S. borders and airports.
Experts determined that the problem was simply too complex for the technology of the time. A federal study of facial-recognition systems in 2000 by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) found potential problems with all of them, in real-world settings.
But under slightly different circumstances, companies say such systems can be far more useful. Identix's technology has become a key part of the new US-VISIT passport system, which avoids significant identification problems by processing images of people facing forward against a static background.
"That is different from trying to recognize a person in a crowd with poor lighting, movement, different facings and other problems," Identix's Atick said.
Moreover, the technology has improved as companies have focused on delivering the technology specifically for antiterrorism applications. A second NIST study, conducted in 2002, found that error rates had been reduced by 50 percent since its earlier research. By focusing on verification, as the passport systems do, the best systems can match the correct face with biometric data. In the more recent NIST study, they did just that 90 percent of the time, up from 80 percent in 2000.