Put Your Fingerprint on the Dotted Line

Fingerprinting technology is stirring up shoppers

| March 22, 2007

Lorna, the sharp-tongued blogger behind Lornamatic.com, was all set to buy a BMW when an ink pad got in her way. She visited a dealership?with her husband in Torrance, California,?hoping to leave?with a new X3. They found?the right?car, filled out the paperwork, provided copies of their marriage license, credit reports, and driver's licenses. The couple were about to finalize the deal when the salesperson requested a thumbprint. 'Taken completely by surprise by all this, my husband and I asked many questions,' she recalls. 'We were told that the data would remain on file at the dealership for seven years. That this policy is in place to protect us.' Lorna and her husband refused to ink up and left empty-handed. She did some research when she got home and found that the dealership was enacting a failed version of Senate Bill 504, an early incarnation of which tried to give auto sellers the right to request the thumbprint of a buyer. 'I resent the implication that I am somehow a less worthy customer,' Lorna writes, 'a potential criminal due to my refusal to provide my fingerprints to a private, nongovernmental entity.'

Lorna is not alone. Fingerprinting -- once considered the ultimate technology for identifying and tracking criminals -- is now being used by the commercial world to keep tabs on customers. Across the country, grocery stores, banks, and car dealerships are asking patrons to smudge on the ink in an effort to combat fraud and theft. The purported upside is quicker transactions and heightened security; the downsides are less privacy and feeling like you're minutes from a mug shot.

Walt Disney World has been using fingerprints to track theme park visitors since January of 2005, according to the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). Guests over the age of ten are asked to make a 'peace sign' and scan their index and middle fingers. According to EPIC, Disney's policy is vague, with little explanation on how long the information will be kept and what additional purposes it might serve. On its website, EPIC details its reservations about Disney's requirement: 'The collection of fingerprint information is associated with police arrest, employment with financial institutions, or controlling access to highly secure facilities. Broadening the practice to include visitors to theme parks is a new and unnecessary use especially if it involves children.'

Unlike theme parks, banks are well practiced in the art of identification; they're also jumping on the fingerprint bandwagon. The Consumerist reports that Bank of America and JP Morgan Chase currently require a thumbprint from any nonmember attempting to cash a check. When a manager at Chase was confronted about the issue he replied that the regulation was 'due to the Patriot Act.' Not so, the Consumerist's Carey Greenberg-Berger writes, citing the Uniform Commercial Code, a legal guideline for financial transactions that states that two forms of identification -- not necessarily fingerprints -- would be sufficient.

Katherine Noyes writes for TechNewsWorld that banks, grocery stores, and theme parks are using fingerprint technology because it decreases the chances of identity theft and makes shopping quicker. But in Noyes' article, Ant Allan, research vice president for technology consultants Garter Group, disagrees. 'Does it really enhance the customer experience enough to make them bother with it?' Allan asks. 'Most folks are probably thinking, 'I'm perfectly happy doing it the way I already do.''

Go there >> Brave New Car Dealer: Fingerprints Required to Buy a Car?

Go there, too >> Theme Parks and Your Privacy

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