Making purchases at your fingers' ends

Biometrics can eliminate wallet, credit card, checkbook and cash.

July 24, 2005|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

When Jennifer Page goes shopping for groceries at the Albertson's supermarket near her home in Portland, Ore., she doesn't have to worry about bringing cash, a credit card or even a wallet for that matter.

Just her finger.

She pays for her purchases by pressing her index finger against a machine that scans it and then deducts the money from her bank account.

"It makes shopping a little easier," said Page, a financial analyst who wishes more stores would install the finger-scan technology. "I probably would spend a lot more money if they would expand."

The payment system at Page's market employs biometrics, a technology that recognizes physical characteristics of the body to identify a person. While biometrics have been used for years, often for security reasons, by airports, banks, and even nightclubs, the technology has begun to make inroads in the consumer retail sector.

It's the latest evolution of the credit and retail industry to make shopping, and paying to do so, ever more efficient - from contactless payment cards to miniature credit cards that fit on a key ring.

With electronic payments outpacing the use of cash and checks two years ago, according to a study by the American Bankers Association and Boston-based Dove Consulting, America is increasingly becoming a cashless society. Finger-scan payment systems have been provocative because they're so unlike traditional methods and evoke science-fiction themes of "Big Brother."

The rise in identify theft has spurred interest in the technology as people look for safer payment options. The companies pushing its retail use say you can't steal a finger as you can a credit card - and you need your finger to sign up in the first place. You don't have to worry about forged signatures or faked identifications, they say.

Privacy concerns

But some civil libertarians and consumer groups raise concerns about privacy and contend that the systems aren't foolproof. It would be detrimental to consumers if their personal data is stolen from these companies or their name, and money, somehow become associated with someone else's fingerprint.

BioPay of Herndon, Va., and Pay By Touch of San Francisco, two developers of the technology in retail use, contend the finger-scan adds a layer of complexity for an ID thief. The companies have launched in dozens of stores in several states, from North Carolina to California.

BioPay said it has no time frame for adding machines in Maryland stores; Pay By Touch said it could come to the state by the end of the year.

"People are trying to simplify their lives," said Shannon Riordan, director of marketing for Pay By Touch. "They're deluged with passwords, credit cards and loyalty cards. They're looking for ways to make their lives easier. The No. 1 thing that is driving our consumers to adopt Pay By Touch is convenience."

Slow starter

Retailers have been slow to sign on because of the potential bugs of early adoption and the newness of the systems. But they're well aware of how other new technologies, from self-serve checkout to Internet shopping, have rapidly transformed their businesses in recent years.

"Retailers are not always the most avant-garde group in the world," said Britt Beemer, founder of America's Research Group, which tracks shopping data. "It takes a while for some kinds of technology to take hold before they jump in."

Some consumers, even those who have used the scan device, hesitated at first because they found it intrusive.

"It was a little intimidating at first because I didn't know where all my information was going, but I finally decided to just do it," said Leia James of Charlotte, N.C. The 24-year-old waitress decided to try it out after the restaurant where she works, Mert's Heart & Soul, installed a machine.

"It's much quicker," said the restaurant's owner, James Bazzelle. "It just seems like the thing of the future to me."

Long history

The use of biometrics in commerce actually dates back to at least 14th-century China, when merchants would identify young children by palm prints and fingerprints. It was used in some forms in Western cultures in the late 19th century. About 20 years ago, the Army tested an automated teller that identified users by their handprints, but it never became widespread.

"Much of this stuff has never gotten out of the pilot stages," said Jim Wayman, director of the Biometrics Identification Research program at San Jose State University. "Banks, for instance, couldn't figure out how to make money."

More recently, nightclubs in Europe have used the technology to weed out customers with troubled pasts and to give rewards to frequent clients. Check-cashing businesses and banks have used it, as well as companies to ensure that only their employees log onto their computer systems.

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