Originally created 08/14/04

Biometric technology getting more action in consumer applications



NEW YORK -- Stuffing something in a public locker usually isn't a memorable experience. You drop a coin, take the key and move on.

But at the Statue of Liberty, recently reopened after a two-year closure, stashing a package offers a glimpse into the future. To rent, close and reopen lockers, visitors touch an electronic reader that scans fingerprints.

"It's easy," Taiwanese visitor Yu-Sheng Lee, 26, said after stowing a bag. "I think it's good. I don't have to worry about a key or something like that."

Like nearly every other tourist at the statue that day, this was Lee's first experience with biometrics - the identification of an individual based on personal characteristics like fingerprints, facial features or iris patterns.

While the technology is not new, having seen use for years to restrict access in corporate and military settings, it is only now creeping into everyday life. Over the next few years, people currently unfamiliar with the technology will be asked to use it in everything from travel settings to financial transactions.

The Nine Zero, an upscale hotel in Boston, recently began letting guests in its $3,000-a-night Cloud Nine suite enter and exit by looking into a camera that analyzes their iris patterns. Piggly Wiggly Co. grocery stores in the South just launched a pay-by-fingerprint system, though pilot tests elsewhere have had lukewarm results.

"All these customer-facing applications, they're emerging," said Joseph Kim, a consultant with the International Biometric Group, which follows the industry. "We'll be seeing a lot more very, very soon. Whether that sticks or not depends on how customers feel about it."

Feelings seemed mixed about the lockers at the Statue of Liberty on a muggy New York afternoon last week.

Some people were befuddled by the system and had to put their fingers on the reader several times before a scan was properly made. Others forgot their locker number upon their return, or didn't remember which finger they had used to check it out. One young woman accidentally put her ticket to the statue in the locker, requiring her to open it and then re-register it all over again with another finger scan.

With all the confusion, lines at the three touchscreen kiosks that control the bank of 170 lockers frequently stretched six or seven people deep, requiring a five-minute wait.

"I think it's overly complicated. It takes too much time," said Stephen Chemsak, 26, who lives in Japan. To him the old-fashioned key system would have been much better.

The lockers were made necessary by new security measures at the statue that include a ban on large packages. Brad Hill, whose family business, Evelyn Hill Inc., has run the island's concessions for 73 years, decided that the usual public lockers would be problematic because people often lose the keys. And that seemed to become even more likely now that tourists have to empty their pockets for a metal detector on their way into the statue.

"Biometrics seemed the most logical choice," he said. After all, he added with a laugh, people "don't lose their finger."

Hill expects visitors will find the lockers easier once they get used to them. Representatives from the locker maker, Smarte Carte Inc., say the biometric aspect often requires a fair amount of coaching, especially for people who aren't very familiar with computers.

Smarte Carte's fingerprint lockers were introduced two years ago at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, and also can be found in Chicago's Union Station and the Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure theme parks in Florida.

The company adopted the biometric system for the airport lockers to assure the Transportation Security Administration that the bins could not be rented by one person then opened by someone else.

Fingerprint biometric systems generally work by reducing the image of a print to a template, a mathematic algorithm that gets stored in a database and can be checked when the person returns for later scans. In applications like the biometric lockers, the print itself is not stored or sent to authorities.

However, prints are being run through terrorist watch lists in the biggest deployment of biometrics yet - the federal government's new system for tracking foreign travelers.

Now in its early stages, the program, known as US-VISIT, calls for visitors to go through biometric scans to ensure that they are who their visa or passport says they are. Passports issued by the United States and other countries are getting new chips that will have facial-recognition data, and other biometrics might be added.

Separately, iris-scanning systems have cropped up in European airports as a way to speed immigration controls.

But you won't have to be a jet-setter to encounter biometrics more and more. For one, it's increasingly being used to control access to computers.

And scattered grocery stores have tested systems that let consumers check out with a touch of a fingerprint scanner. Piggly Wiggly recently installed such a system at four South Carolina stores and expects to expand it to 116 other outlets, saying it offers speed, convenience and protection against credit card theft.

Other pay-by-fingerprint systems, including one tested several years ago at a McDonald's in Fresno, Calif., haven't met with much enthusiasm.

But that could change now that credit card fraud and identity theft have emerged as bigger problems, said Dean Douglas, a services vice president at IBM Corp., which is handling the back-end technology for Piggly Wiggly's finger-scanning system.

"Within the next five to 10 years," Douglas predicted, "we're going to see biometrics play an increasingly large part of consumer transactions."

On the Net:

http://www.smartecarte.com/lockers

http://www.biometricgroup.com