When I went to my grocery store last week all the payment keypads in the checkout lines had been changed, and a big sign announced, “Pay With Your Finger!” Attached to the keypad was a new device, slightly bigger than a computer mouse, with a small round sensor screen that can read fingerprints.
“It’s fast, easy, secure, and free!” said the sign. The company poised to make billions by fingerprinting all my neighbors and speeding us through checkout lines everywhere is called Pay By Touch. As of mid-July, 2.4 million shoppers had already given Pay By Touch “the finger,” along with their linking bank account info. “People either love it or think it’s a sign of the coming apocalypse,” said Amer Hawatmeh, owner of a Tampa convenience store that has signed up hundreds of customers for Pay By Touch. “But to me, it’s the wave of the future.”
There are many people who are worried about the implementation of this technology besides those who believe it may be prophesied in Revelation 13:16 (“And he causeth all to receive a mark in their right hand or foreheads, that no man might buy or sell save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name … 666”). Could it be that the convenience of paying with your finger isn’t worth the trade-offs?
“The problem with all biometric identifiers is that they’re not so easy to replace,” said Lee Tien, a spokesman for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Say you lose your keys. You get another key and you change your locks, and you’re back to where you were before. If your credit card number is stolen, you get another credit card and revoke the old one. You can’t do that with biometrics. At a certain point you’re running out of fingers.”
Pay By Touch assures customers that their security is the best in the industry. They are spending millions on data security, and hire “ethical hackers” to try to break into their system, and correct any problems they might find. Pay By Touch also says not to worry that thieves might try to steal your identity by cutting off your finger to use in their machines. Because the scanners take into account the level of moisture on a person’s skin, only live fingers will work.
But experts find flaws in the company’s guarantees. “Our experience has been that most security measures can be defeated,” said Marc Rothenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. He noted the story of Japanese cryptographer Tsutomu Matsumoto, who in 2005 fooled 80 percent of the fingerprint scanners he tested using molds made from Gummi Bears candy. Fingerprints can also be faked using Play-Doh or Superglue. “It simply isn’t very hard to do,” said Lee Tien.
Meanwhile, fingerprint scanners and other biometric devices are already making their way into many other areas. At Osset School in England, fingerprint scanners can tell the staff how much each child can spend on lunch, deduct it from their accounts and record what foods they choose. “Over 1,300 students have school lunches each day,” said head teacher Martin Shevill. “Clearly we want to have an efficient and quick system that will pass people through our three dining halls as effectively as possible. Also, if we or a parent are suspicious that a student isn’t eating properly, then it is quite possible to get a printout of that day, or that week, or that fortnight. Then we will be able to see that they have been eating healthy vegetables and plenty of fresh fruit.” What mom or dad wouldn’t be happy to have their kid fingerprinted in order to make sure they’re eating bananas?
Jails are also installing fingerprint recognition systems, although not always with complete success. Under the headline “Jail Biometric Glitch ‘Limited,'” the BBC reported that the Glencohil Prison’s fingerprint system may have let prisoners have access to all parts of the jail, allowing them to settle “old scores.” A prison spokesman said “the degree of sensitivity wasn’t as discriminate as it should have been,” but that prisoners only had access to certain wings of the prison. “Keys are used to access the whole prison.” Hmm. Maybe when the kids at Osset School are done with their fruit, they could be given access to certain wings of their … school. But certainly not places like the teachers’ lounge, where the chocolate covered donuts are kept.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Defense Department is already actively using the latest multi-modal readers, which recognize iris, finger, and face biometrics. “The soldiers carry them in their packs,” says Tim Johnson, of Securimetrics. “If they kick down a door in Falluja, or wherever, they can line the suspects up and check their IDs to see if they are on the database. Every prison camp in Iraq is using them for incoming and outgoing prisoners.”
Of course, biometric ID, linking a person with vast databases of personal information, isn’t just for suspected criminals. The Homeland Security Department would like to make fingerprints or iris scans part of state-issued ID cards for travelers and people collecting federal benefits. And 27 countries in Europe have already signed up for the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, which demands that all passports issued after October 26th must contain a machine readable chip with the passport holder’s details and a biometric identifier.
Are we coming to a time, in the near future, when you can’t travel, collect Social Security benefits, or buy a piece of fruit without being fingerprinted? “Our wait time and checkout time is one and a half minutes,” said the manager at my grocery store. “With this new system, we think we can cut that in half!” All right! Forty-five seconds more, just for me! But if I had any doubt at all whether Pay With Your Finger would become a success, I only had to look at the smiling face of the lady behind me in line. “Wow,” she said. “Is this cool or what!?”