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Cash or plastic? How about fingerprint?
Biometric transactions are faster and more convenient -- and closer than you may think.
July 20, 2005: 12:29 PM EDT
By Grace Wong, CNN/Money staff writer
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NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Instead of keeping countless cards and pieces of information that verify your identification, soon there may be only one thing you need: yourself.

As identity theft has become the bane of consumers everywhere, technologies aimed at making transactions more secure are gaining ground. Such "biometric technologies" include iris scans, as well as those for fingerprints, palm, skin, voice and face patterns.

"In everyday life, the use of biometrics has been growing," said Philip Youn, a consultant at International Biometric Group.

The underlying strength of biometrics is that it uses patterns that are unique to each individual. Your fingerprints belong to you alone, and unlike that password to your online bank account, you can never lose it.

Where can you see it now?

Retail. Albertson's, the No. 2 supermarket chain, is one of hundreds of retailers testing biometric payment systems that let customers pay for purchases with a mere swipe of a finger.

It works like this: You register your fingerprint and your bank account with a service provider. The main ones are Pay By Touch and BioPay.

When you shop at a participating merchant, you just swipe your finger and the payment is automatically transferred from your bank to the merchant -- you don't have to hand over a card, sign a receipt or punch in a PIN.

Earlier this year, Albertson's joined the Pay By Touch network and is testing the service at four of its stores in the Portland, Oregon area.

"One thing we've heard repeatedly from our customers is that they would like to speed up the checkout process," Albertson's spokeswoman Shannon Bennett said. The feedback has been "very positive" she said, although the company hasn't announced any expansion plans for the program.

So far Pay By Touch is available at 100 to 200 stores while rival BioPay's system can be accessed at 150 locations.

"Biometric payments are the safest because no information is passed to the merchant," said Donita Prakash, vice president of marketing at BioPay.

And because you don't have to present your card at the point of sale, the transaction is faster, Pay By Touch marketing director Shannon Riordan said.

Another selling point: biometrics could offer are instant age verification for alcohol and tobacco sales.

Computers. Getting started with biometrics for your computer is as easy as picking up a product like the Biopod Password Manager produced by APC. The small fingerprint scanning device, which plugs into a USB port, stores all your passwords in your fingerprint.

When you go visit your favorite Web sites -- whether it be Amazon.com or your investment portfolio -- all you have to do is scan your fingerprint.

If you don't want to deal with external hardware, IBM, Toshiba and Compaq all sell notebook models already outfitted with a fingerprint reader.

The price of the Biopod is about $50 while laptops with the device built-in can sell for as little as $1,300.

Travel. If you travel internationally, then soon you'll be carrying some high-tech identification. The Department of State has launched a plan to introduce electronic passports that come with a chip that stores the usual personal information as well as a digital photo which enables biometric comparison through the use of facial recognition technology at international borders.

According to State Department spokeswoman Joanne Moore, the electronic passports are still in test mode, but partial implementation is planned for the fall and full implementation in 2006.

Fundamentally flawed technology?

No biometric technology is 100 percent reliable, and privacy advocates are concerned with another problem -- centralized databases holding huge amounts of personal information.

"Whenever you're collecting uniquely identifiable information that you can't change, that's a very bad idea. It's a honeypot for hackers and attackers," Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, said.

"Biometric technology would seem like it's a fantastic fix for identity theft, but once the ultimate identifier is stolen, there is no recourse for an individual to prove who they are," she said.

While victims of identity theft can get a new credit card number, change their address and even apply for a new Social Security number, they can't change their DNA.

Furthermore, there are those who just cannot use certain biometric systems, IBG's Youn said, explaining that some people's fingerprints are damaged, and others are born without readable prints -- although this is a small portion of the population.

Representatives from Pay By Touch and BioPay said when it comes to security, users of biometric payment services can relax because both companies don't store pictures of fingerprints. Instead, tiny measurements unique to each finger are recorded as an algorithm. If a hacker breaks into the system, all he or she would find is a number rather than a usable image of a fingerprint, they said.

Is a federal law that better protects personal data on the way? Click here.  Top of page

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