Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Fox News on PBT

When students living in Berkeley, Calif., crave a chicken burrito with an extra heaping of guacamole at High Tech Burrito, a Bay Area-based fast-food chain, they need to remember to bring only two things — an empty stomach and a forefinger. It gives new meaning to "finger food."

That's because even when they leave their wallets in their other pair of pants, they can pay up by simply using their fingers. High Tech Burrito is one of 2,100 stores in 44 states that are or have been clients of
Pay By Touch, a company that lets customers use biometric identification — body-based measurements unique to each person — instead of cash or a credit card to pay their bills.

or Pay By Touch and its clients and customers, biometrics is the cutting edge of convenience and consumer technology. For critics, biometrics straddles the line between privacy rights and identity security on one side and the selling-out of personal data on the other.

"Paying by card is antiquated," Pay By Touch COO John Morris said from the company's headquarters in San Francisco. "It's a constant from a long time ago. People love [biometrics], people love the convenience — it's like a free service that speeds them through the line. They like the security of it.

"If you hand a paper check to a stranger, seven or eight humans touch that check before it gets into your account, and see your personal data," he added. "With biometrics, you're uniquely you. Why carry a purse in a dark parking lot when I can lock it in the trunk and pay by finger?"

People who enroll in Pay By Touch have two fingerprints — usually those of both forefingers — scanned into a computer that records the patterns of ridges, swirls and whorls that make each person's print unique.

The fingerprint information is stored in a top-security IBM data center. To prevent a data leak, Pay By Touch hires "ethical hackers" to try to break in to the system.

It's got a relatively small staff of 700, but Pay By Touch spends a good portion of its budget, "million of dollars," on data security, according to Morris.

"We won't sell it to anybody, we won't provide it to anybody, and it's a system we started designing ourselves from scratch," he said. "We had input from the Bank of America, from IBM, from Accenture, from the FBI — all of whom have built incredibly secure systems, and it's stored in a fortress that IBM runs for us. It's as secure as anything in the industry."

At each point of purchase, a computer scanner reads the customer's finger, allowing for countless environmental factors that make each reading slightly different from the next.

"If you're holding something in your right arm, like a child, you can use your left hand," Morris said. "Or if you have a Band-Aid on your finger, or if you have a cut, depending on how wide the cut is, the technology would still be able to read your unique print, even if you had a blemish or a scrape on your finger."

For those curious readers who are morbidly inclined, it might be reassuring to note that the scanners take into account the level of moisture on a person's skin. In other words, dead fingers won't work.

Even Pay By Touch's critics concede that using fingerprints, instead of other biometric readings, was a wise choice.

Retinal scans, which examine the pattern of blood vessels inside the eye, have largely proven not to be very useful, say biometrics experts. Face scans, voice prints and hand telemetry have all had varying levels of success, but none to the level that fingerprint scans have.

Iris scans, which memorize the colored part of each person's eye, look promising, but that field hasn't been explored enough yet to base an industry on.

Fingerprint scanning has so far proven the most accurate. That's been enough for the stores and customers who tout Pay By Touch's convenience, reliability and security.

Since High Tech Burrito enrolled with Pay By Touch in 2002 as one of its first retail clients, more than 2,000 other retailers have joined up, and 2.4 million shoppers have given Pay By Touch "the finger," as it were.

The number of Pay By Touch consumer users expands by tens of thousands each month, Morris said. He added that the service has also proven surprising popular with people on welfare, who no longer have to whip out an embarrassingly noticeable card to pay for their groceries.

Pay By Touch is also trying to expand into new marketplaces. One potential client is an association of physicians in a "mid- to large-sized" city, according to Morris. Pay By Touch would allow the patients to register basic medical information — such as allergies, medical history, family histories of heart disease, and so on — in the company's database so that it would be in a "digital wallet" instead of in, as Morris put it, "a manila folder where who knows who can see it?"

They are also expanding globally, with installations in the UK, and trials in France and South America.

Pay By Touch

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