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More finger scans coming to market

Naples Daily News | March 7 2004

Will that be cash, check or finger?

Biometric devices which confirm identification by measuring biological or behavioral features have been a staple of police work and science-fiction movies for decades. Now they're moving into the everyday world of airports, workplaces and corner markets.

In the future, expect to see them at cash registers, allowing customers to pay for goods as well no ATM card or wallet needed.

The most common biometric measure is fingerprints, but some devices also identify based on a retinal or iris scan, a face or voice. Biometrics promises identities that promoters claim are virtually impossible to steal, impersonate or misplace.

"Some type of biometric is the only way we'll be able to reliably identify anyone," says Sgt. Greg Fox of the Identity Theft Task Force at the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department in California. "You can take my name, but you can't take my print."

Critics contend biometrics moves us closer to a world of Big Brother.

"Biometrics is a technology that has a lot of potential that's bad for privacy, although a lot of people consider it a silver bullet," says Lee Tien, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy advocacy group in San Francisco.

To Valen Lee, biometrics seems like a business-saver for merchants fighting bad checks.

Lee works at his family's grocery store, Lee's Food King, in Sacramento. Bad check losses at the store's check-cashing window hit $30,000 during 2002. "We had to do something," Lee says.

He installed a finger-scan identification system a year ago. It cost $10,000 for setup and $80 a month for data and support service for the system.

Now, more than 5,000 transactions later, the system has more than paid for itself by reducing the store's bad-check losses by at least two-thirds.

Lee bought a system from BioPay, a Virginia company that is one of three major players in the U.S. check-cashing and point-of-sale biometric market.

Customers enroll in the BioPay system by scanning both index fingers, swiping a driver's license, handing over a personal check and having a picture taken by a small Web cam. The procedure takes a couple of minutes at most.

After initial enrollment, you can return without identification, place a finger on the scanner to pull up your identification on a monitor for the cashier, and cash a check. The account information is stored at the company headquarters and not shared with others, according to BioPay.

BioPay is rolling out a "bCheck" service that allows customers to pay for goods by using a finger scan like a debit or credit card. Some stores in Washington, D.C., are using it now. BioPay's prime competitors, which also use finger scans, are Pay By Touch in San Francisco and Biometric Access Corp. in Texas.

Pay By Touch has a payment system in a Seattle Thriftway store with about 3,000 customers registered on it, says Caroline McNally, the company's chief marketing officer. Pay By Touch, having completed a $10 million financing round last fall, is now going after national clients, including a video-store chain.

McNally and others say the biometric systems are becoming more affordable. For instance, fingerprint readers cost more than $1,000 a couple of years ago; now they run less than $100.

Customer acceptance may be rising as well in a post-Sept. 11, 2001, world where security is a growing concern.

"I think the time is right for this now. I think consumers are more ready to accept it," McNally says.

Certainly, such systems are becoming more visible. More than 100 airports and 14 seaports participate in the federal US-VISIT program, which requires many foreigners to have finger scans and digital photos taken as they enter the country. The information is compared electronically to criminal and immigration databases.

But it is life at the office that will drive widespread acceptance of biometrics, predicts Trevor Prout, director of marketing for the International Biometric Group, a consulting and research firm in New York. "I think people will become more comfortable with these technologies through the workplace," he says.

Total biometrics sales are expected to jump to $4.6 billion by 2008.

Key to growth is selling customers on the idea that biometrics offers privacy protection rather than privacy invasion.

"It really helps the consumer protect their personal and financial information," says Ron Smith CEO of Biometric Access Corp. "They don't have to tell a clerk anything or show a clerk anything."

But Smith knows not everyone will be sold.

"There are some people who don't like it," he adds. "They feel it's Big Brother. I think as far as buying groceries it will always be an option to participate or not participate."
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