Consumers Resist Retail Biometrics

News Analysis: Retailers find the argument for speed and efficiency compelling, but some customers and privacy advocates see it differently.

As assistant director of information systems for the $700 million Piggly Wiggly grocery chain, Rachel Bolt has been one of the most vocal proponents of biometric retail authentication systems. At Piggly Wiggly, that system—like almost every other retail biometric system being tested today—is based on fingerprints.

But although Bolt saw initially strong consumer interest and support for the system, that support has lately seen a serious drop.

Bolt said she didnt appreciate how emotionally intense some of the opposition was until she visited a store and saw a 70-year-old woman literally throw a Bible at an employee trying to enroll people in the program.

"She told him that God was going to rain hellfire on him and that he was promoting the devils work," Bolt said, adding that she took that to mean the customer was not interested in enrolling.

When Piggly Wiggly, which has 114 stores in South Carolina and Georgia, first launched its biometric program in the first half of 2005, it was one of the industrys largest commitments to retail biometrics, and is therefore being closely watched.

"We piloted it in four stores and it worked out extremely well," Bolt said. "The rollout to the entire chain, however, did not go nearly as well as we expected."

The 70-year-old customer was reacting to the concern of some in the religious community that RFID (radio-frequency identification) and biometric programs are similar to a Bible story known as "the mark of the beast." The story from Revelation speaks of limits to sales or purchases "save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name."

Katherine Albrecht is a consumer privacy advocate whose book "SpyChips" discusses privacy concerns about RFID. Albrecht also lectures about the Mark of the Beast in relation to retail identification issues.

In the Bible, "This mark is specifically described as being in the right hand or in the forehead. Fingerprint systems like [the one being used at Piggly Wiggly] clearly do not meet this definition," Albrecht said.

"However, there is a concern that as we begin using the body to make payments instead of cash or plastic, we could be paving the way for a system like that predicted in the Bible, where something related to ones body … is needed to perform the authentication necessary to make a purchase."

Many retailers have a difficult time dealing with such biblical issues, as they see biometric authentication as simply a time-saving alternative to paper identification that is also more easily tied into CRM (customer relationship management) and payment systems.

/zimages/1/28571.gifClick here to read about the merger between biometrics ID vendors Viisage and Identix.

The benefits of biometric authentication for retailers—and, to a lesser extent, for consumers—relate to speed and better information management. Albertsons is one of the larger retail chains testing the technology today, with Wal-Mart, Target and Costco reportedly testing as well.

A customer paying with a credit/debit card often has to fish the card out of a wallet or purse, have the magstripe swiped, sometimes multiple times before a reading is accepted, and wait for a receipt to be printed and then signed.

Check-writing customers will often delay the checkout line even more, as the time it takes to write a check and find and have the cashier examine one or two forms of identification is not inconsequential.

The biometric checkout is designed to require the customer to quickly present a finger for identification. The almost instantaneous authentication can replace a payment card and a loyalty card. On the CRM front, it would also positively associate specific purchases with a specific customer.

As a practical matter, Piggly Wigglys Bolt said, the fingerprint approach has some limited drawbacks, beyond potentially facilitating Armageddon close-out sales transactions.

Chief among those drawbacks is that many people simply cannot be fingerprinted. Thats the case for some people with thin skin, including those who have it as part of their genetic makeup as well as those who use cleaning chemicals extensively or take a wide range of prescription drugs that slightly thin the skin while treating various autoimmune ailments.

People who have injured their fingers even slightly—perhaps with a knife scrape—can find their prints become either unreadable or altered enough to cause the system to reject the purchase. Also, people whose fingers have limited movement sometimes cannot be scanned properly.

"Our experience has been that the elderly population and construction workers have difficulty enrolling" and therefore in having transactions processed, Bolt said. "You put one scratch on the fingerprint and its not going to read it."

She said many of those issues can be addressed with more attention at the point of enrollment. Trained enrollers can apply more—or sometimes less—pressure from the fingers to extract more usable scans, she said, and they can also try scanning more than one finger.

Next Page: Biometric alternatives to fingerprints.