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You Say Fingerprint, We Say "Tiny Measurements From Your Finger Which Are Unique to You"

By Matt Wood in News on Mar 22, 2006 3:54PM

chicagoist_2006_03_fingerprint.jpgArea Jewel shoppers don't need to bring a wallet to buy groceries anymore, just a fingerprint. Excuse us, not a fingerprint, just their finger, and its "hundreds of characteristics in the grooves at the end of the index finger--like spacing, size and curvature," that can identify them in seconds. Okay, that sounds a lot like a fingerprint.

On Tuesday, Jewel announced that it had rolled out the Pay By Touch system in all 204 area Jewel and Jewel-Osco stores. Customers who sign up for the service can press their finger to a terminal, enter their phone number, and the system will debit a checking account associated with the account. Pay By Touch is already in use at 24 area Cub Foods stores, and almost 10,000 people have signed up since Jewel began testing in January.

The makers of Pay By Touch insist that the system doesn't pose a privacy concern (or any more than a store affinity program or auto-debit system does) because it doesn't store an actual image of a fingerprint. The software captures unique elements of fingerprints and converts them into a proprietary mathematical equation that is encrypted and stored on a central server in Colorado. Pay By Touch says that even in the worst-case scenario in which a hacker steals this data, they couldn't do anything with it because it's not tied to a full fingerprint. Privacy advocates say that customers should still be wary of any system that uses a single piece of data to authorize access to your bank accounts.

Chicagoist is always the first person to give cool new technology a whirl, but we're not sure this system, ahem, buys us anything other than a few seconds of convenience. We don't mind taking a debit card out of our wallet and swiping it in lieu of letting Jewel store our fingerprint--sorry, our fingerprint's groove-spacing, size, and curvature--mainly because we like to limit the number of places that have our checking account information on file. The Tribune article cherrypicked quotations from a few skeptical customers, and their web poll shows that about three in four people aren't comfortable with the Pay By Touch system. People are afraid to use those self-checkout lanes at Walgreen's and Home Depot, so we wonder why people would suddenly be willing to set aside reasonable privacy concerns to use a system that maybe cuts 10 seconds off their checkout time. Have any of you signed up for Pay By Touch, and what made you decide to do it (or not)?