March 28, 2007
The new technology is called Pay By Touch. The system puts your fingerprint in an electronic database and links it to your Discover Card, American Express Card, or checking account. When its time to pay just press your index finger against the reader and off you go... no need to carry checks, credit cards or cash. The Pay By Touch company touts the system as a secure alternative to credit cards and checks. Every fingerprint is unique, so there is zero risk that someone could go on a shopping spree with your money. And its fast! No need to sign receipts or punch in your 4-digit pin code (because that takes sooo long after all).
Unfortunately, things aren't so simple; Pay By Touch really scares me. Signing up for Pay By Touch is volunteering your fingerprint for a database which could potentially be used for anything. Anyone who watches Crime Scene Investigation knows that our government will tap into any DNA or fingerprint database they can in order to find you. Can I expect the Pay By Touch company to protect my privacy? I'm not very confident. The United States has quite a bad record over the past few years when it comes to issues of civil liberties. The government is under attack for warrentless wiretaps, library record searches and anything else that might keep us safe from "terrorism." A voluntary fingerprint database, sold on the idea of "convenience" and "personal security" sounds like nothing more than an easy way to get information that otherwise would be difficult or illegal to obtain. Could this merely be a conspiracy theory? Maybe. Inevitably the Supreme Court will hear and decide a case regarding Pay By Touch or some similar technology. Handing over your fingerprint to this database before the law is clear is a big mistake.
And Pay By Touch will NOT increase your personal security. Back when debit cards became all the rage people said they would be safer because they didn't have to carry around cash anymore. But what if the place you want to shop doesn't take debit cards? I prefer to use my Discover Card when I shop because it has great rewards, but not every place I go takes Discover, so I have to carry my Visa as well. The point is... even if I sign up for Pay By Touch, I will still carry my Discover to use at places that don't have fingerprint scanners; I will still carry my Visa to use at places that don't take Discover; and I will still carry cash to use at places that don't take any credit or debit. If I lose my wallet or get robbed, it won't matter that I signed up for Pay By Touch, the crook will have exactly the same access to my financials as he did before.
Pay By Touch looks cool. You might feel like a badass paying for your organic milk with your index finger; but don't get conned. We don't need Pay By Touch and you should not sign up for it. The current credit/debit card system is certainly not perfect, but Pay By Touch does nothing to help.