What's New in Technology for August 2004

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High Technology - Biometrics - ID At Your Fingertips
Imagine paying for your groceries at checkout by placing your fingertip in an electronic reader - no more rummaging in your wallet for cash or for your credit card. If you think this scenario belongs in a sci-fi movie, think again. In some of our largest retail and service chains, biometric technology -- most based on fingerprint verification -- is now being used to facilitate payment transactions and counter a rising tide of identity theft.

Different companies are using fingerprint ID programs in various ways. Some use fingerprint verification to check memberships - dispensing with the need for customers to carry a plastic membership card. Some companies are using fingertip identification to cash payroll checks. And there are other types of business applications currently under development. But perhaps, it is in retail that biometrics appears to offer the most potential for facilitating payment procedures. Several companies in high volume retail businesses are testing "touch pay" systems that allow customers to use their fingertip and a pass code to purchase goods or services. These "touch pay" systems capture a series of key data points, which are unique to each individual, from the fingertip to create a finger image. (The reader does not need to capture the entire finger print image to obtain sufficient data to identify specific individuals.) Customers who sign up for the "touch pay" verification program usually provide fingerprints and some form of picture ID. Once your fingerprint "signature" is in the retailer’s system you can then make payment transactions with the touch of your fingertip. Some systems require you to also select, and then use a private ID code, along with your fingerprint signature. The information is then used by the biometric system to authenticate your identity before approving the transaction and connecting to the appropriate financial accounts.

The technology used in "touch pay" systems has been in existence for many years, but until now its use has been restricted to criminal justice and police procedures. It has not yet become mainstream, but many companies are exploring the concept, or trying the system in regional test runs to determine if customers like it and are comfortable using it. The grocery chain, Kroger Company, has been using biometrics for several years in certain locations. Texas-based Palm Beach Tan uses fingerprint verification throughout its U.S. operations to check that clients have up-to-date memberships.

Here’s how the pros and cons stack up:

  • Speed-the verification and payment procedure takes about 10 seconds or less;

  • Convenience for customers-no need to carry cash or a large number of credit and loyalty cards to pay for goods and services;

  • Improved accuracy - helps to minimize the risk of identify theft
  • Some customers balk at the idea of "fingerprinting"

  • Some feel the technology is intrusive, it seems too "Big Brother"

  • Fears that security might be breached and that identity thieves could steal finger images
Will biometric technology become as commonplace as price scanners? Technology industry consultants believe that it will, and that it will be accepted as safer, more efficient and more convenient. Whether they are right remains to be seen.

If you would like more information on biometrics and the various business applications currently available, log on to the site operated by research-based Biometric Consortium or try for a comprehensive range of information on suppliers and products.


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