Cash, Credit or Fingerprints Please

Despite some doubts, fingerprint ID technology is growing in retail sector.


PASSAU, Germany, Nov. 22, 2007 — -- You're in the checkout line and realize you left your wallet at home? No problem!

Just hand the clerk your finger.

A growing number of customers in Germany are paying for their bills by fingerprint these days. With the touch of a digit to a light-sensitive pad, customers pay for their items, provided they have an account in the store's system that can be debited.

Edeka, a major supermarket chain, installed more than 80 digi-proof systems, as they are called, across Germany and is planning to add an additional 200 systems soon. They became the first retailer in Germany to use the technology.

Despite resistance from some, "pay by touch" technology continues to spread across the retail world, driven by growing security concerns and helped by the falling price of scanners.

In one of the newer applications, computer makers now offer fingerprint sign-on technology, a boon to corporations worried about employees traveling with laptops that may contain sensitive data.

From its origins as a crime-fighting tool, fingerprinting spread first to government agencies and commercial industry as a way to keep unauthorized people out of sensitive areas, like top-secret labs or crucial computer servers.

Then retail industry got interested.

Piggly Wiggly, the U.S. grocery chain, which has 114 stores in South Carolina and Georgia, launched its biometric program in early 2005. It was one of the retail industry's largest commitments to biometrics and it has been closely watched from the start.

Initially, the pilot project worked extremely well.

But there was resistance. Security experts worried that hackers could steal fingerprint data, unleashing a new version of identity theft. And privacy experts decried the Orwellian aspect of the technology.

There was even resistance from some religious groups whose leaders urged congregations to avoid the technology for fear they be branded 666 from the the mark of the beast, a story from Revelation 13.

One customer, a 70-year-old woman, reportedly threw a Bible at a Piggly Wiggly employee who was trying to sign up customers to the program.

By and large, such concerns do not exist in Germany, where retailers use the argument of speed and efficiency to get customer support.

Germany, a nation obsessed with privacy rights, is a tough market for systems that store personal details, but even most data protection experts see no legal problem as long as the system is voluntary and people still have the choice to pay their bills how they choose.

"You just need to register once and then you need not worry whether you brought your wallet along," said Duschan Gert, spokesman for Edeka.

"The system gives us a little edge over our competition. Our customers have been warming up to it really well. On average about 25 percent of our customers are using the system, and that's a very positive reaction," Gert said.

The system is simple for customers to use. A scanner compares the shopper's fingerprint with those stored in the shop's database along with account details. The information is stored in a secure database and cannot be accessed by an unauthorized party.

There are some German customers who still question whether the system is safe.

"Safety is a nonissue here," said Stefan Sewoester, a sales manager at IT Werke Lahr, one of the pioneers of the fingerprint software in Germany. "Our system is not to be confused with normal fingerprints like law enforcement officers would take. Only certain points of your finger are being transferred into the database and those are totally unique and almost impossible to fake."

After a very intense period of discussion of the pros and the cons with parents and school officials, IT Werke introduced the new technology in eight school cafeterias in southwestern Germany. Similar programs already are in use in some U.S. school systems.

"Almost half of the 5,000 kids are using the system to pay for their lunch, no cash needed, no time wasted looking for your money," Sewoester said. "We found out in test runs that each transaction is cut down by 30-40 seconds, which speaks for convenience and comfort."

IT Werke says other clients are reporting similar experiences.

"One of our clients in Munich has told us that two-thirds of their customers paying by fingerprints are over 40 years old. That's quite a surprise to us, as we had expected that only the young would be interested in this new technology, " Sewoester said.

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