Will It Be Cash, Check or Finger? By Julia Scheeres
2:00 a.m. Oct. 1, 2001 PDT
Fingerprints, long stigmatized by their association with crime scenes
and police stations, may get an image boost when people start using
them to pay for everything from Big Macs to groceries.
That's the philosophy behind Indivos, an Oakland, California, firm
that has invented software that uses fingerprint scanners to process
"We're putting this in front of the mainstream consumer," said Indivos
spokesman Frank Pierce. "You won't need cash or cards to pay for
anything. All you need is your finger and you never leave home
Indivos has partnered with fingerprint sensor manufacturer Digital
Persona to test the service this fall at a "major fast food chain" in
California and supermarkets throughout the country, he said.
Fingerprints -- which have been used to tag criminals for more than a
century -- are increasingly becoming more prominent in the
Many states now fingerprint people that seek driver's licenses or
welfare benefits in an effort to detect fraud. Schools fingerprint
would-be teachers to weed out pedophiles. In the corporate world,
fingerprints are used as biometric keys to access buildings and
computer networks. And in Pennsylvania, schools are testing finger
scanners that allow students to check out library books and buy food
in the cafeteria.
But the Indivos roll-out would be the first to encourage the general
public to give the cashier the finger at the supermarket or fast food
Fingerprints are reliable identifiers because, like snowflakes, no two
fingerprints are alike, said Gary W. Jones, who worked as an FBI
fingerprint specialist for 33 years.
"They are only partially formed by genetics, which is why twins have
the same DNA but have different fingerprints," he said. The whorls,
ridges, loops, and spaces between the ridges are determined by bone
growth, pressure in the womb, chemicals imbibed by the mother and the
But certain conditions degrade fingerprints, Jones said. Aging, as
well as continued exposure to harsh chemicals, gradually wears the
ridges down, making fingerprints harder to capture.
This is one of the reasons that the Indivos' system is suggested as an
alternative payment method -- retailers who adopt the system will
continue to accept cash, checks or credit cards, Pierce said.
For consumers, the biggest draw of fingerscan payment is convenience.
Pierce offered a scenario where a jogger enters a store after a long
run and simply presses her finger against a sensor to purchase a cold
The system would also cut down on time wasted in checkout lines, while
some yahoo fumbles through his pockets looking for enough coins to buy
beer and chips.
And for retailers, fingerprint scanners could reduce costs incurred by
bad checks and stolen credit cards, Pierce said. After all, you can't
forge a fingerprint. Jones said the only way someone could duplicate
one is to make a cast of their finger.
To sign up, customers simply offer a finger, a payment option such as
a credit card or bank account information, and two forms of
identity. A fingerscan is taken on a sensor slightly larger than a
matchbox and the finger's topography is measured and converted into a
numerical code using a proprietary algorithm.
To pay, customers press their fingertip against the sensor and enter a
password, which is used to expedite the database search, explained
Digital Persona spokesman George Myers.
During a three-year test at Visa's headquarters in Foster City,
California, which included more than 400 employees and 50,000
transactions, the system didn't misidentify any of the enrollees, said
Chetan Patwardhan, who oversaw the pilot program.
"The first negative stigma vanished when it started working for them,"
he said. "It worked very well."
The technology does suffers from minor hiccups, said a manager at
Scott's Seafood in Oakland, where the wait staff use it to place
orders and access the restaurant's cash registers. Fingers must be
placed squarely on the sensor for it to work and finger pads that have
been scuffed up from activities such as gardening can be difficult to
read, Michael O'Sullivan said. But the benefits outweigh the
drawbacks, and the management will continue to use the system, he
Widespread use of biometric technology -- which identifies people by
their physical characteristics -- concerns privacy advocates who fear
the government could use the applications to track everyone from
political dissidents to deadbeat dads.
Fingerscans, which are the leading biometric application, will
represent 33 percent or $300 million of the market by 2006, said Frost
& Sullivan analyst Prianka Chopra.
The scanners themselves are relatively cheap -- about $100 -- compared
to other biometric readers such as face-scanners, and the negative
perceptions of fingerprinting will only be a temporary roadblock to
the technology's wide-spread acceptance, she said.
"It's just a matter of time before people get used to the process and
get over their privacy fears," she said.