Electronics giant Sony is planning to launch a fingerprint scanner in a Memory Stick form factor in February this year.

The card, which is smaller than a stick of chewing gum, can register and verify the fingerprints of PC users allowing them to log on, unlock encrypted data files or add digital signatures to documents.

It can stay connected to a single PC, be used to confirm the identity of different users, and is also small enough to be carried around by individuals to verify themselves on a number of different machines — ideal, for example, in a corporate environment.

The device is a follow-on to Sony's FIU-710, a roughly card-size fingerprint scanner that the company has been selling for around two years, and will be introduced along with a USB Memory Stick reader. A special reader for the device is needed because most Memory Stick slots align the card flush with the edge of the adapter so the card is completely enclosed and users cannot put their fingers on the reader.

The FIU-900 works in a similar way to the FIU-710, storing and registering fingerprints in its 512KB of internal memory, and there are several differences to the two devices beyond their size. The fingerprint scanner sensor in the FIU-900 is 128x128 pixels — a slightly lower resolution — however verification can be accomplished in 60 milliseconds compared to one second on the previous model, according to the company.

Both scanners support DES and Triple DES encryption and decryption of data and the FIU-900 can generate and store RSA keys up to 2,048 bits in length, which is double that of its predecessor.

Pricing and precise launch details are expected to be announced shortly.

In addition to the FIU-710, Sony also sells a number of other fingerprint scanner systems. The FIU-600 features an updated version of the fingerprint scanning technology but omits the cryptographic functions, and the FIU-300 is available to other manufacturers for integration with their own products.