Biometrics in the Kingdom of Magic

Walt Disney World's geometry readers (Karen Harmel for News21)

I read a post online about Disney is now fingerprinting visitors to Walt Disney World as a way to prevent ticket fraud.

It seemed so shocking to me that I had to do a search for other articles because it seemed like it might easily be an "urban legend."

It seems that not only is it true, but it has been going on in some form for awhile. It's been 10 years since I was at Walt Disney World in Orlando, and I did not notice this in my recent visit to their California theme park.

By this October, all of Disney's four Orlando theme parks will have fingerprint scanners. That's a database of tens of millions of visitors each year.

Currently, they don't have signage about the data collection, retention policy etc. I read that you can ask to be identified in an alternative fashion, but that is not advertised.

Disney says that they are not collecting "fingerprints" but only "mathematical representations of fingerprints."

It you are a user of (the plagiarism detection/prevention tool), you may recall the press they regularly get about whether or not they have the right to use students' papers/intellectual property to make a profit (student papers become part of the database that they search for matches). They claim that they don't hold the actual paper but only a "fingerfprint" of it.

Different fingerprints, but possibly the same problems.

Finger geometry reader at the Walt Disney World entrance gates in Florida. (Karen Harmel for News 21)Those mathematical representations that Disney retains might be enough to let someone, if they wanted to, look for matches in another database - like one from the NSA, TSA or your local police department.

I'm no authority on the technology of biometrics and Disney is really just my inspiration for writing because what interests me really is the issue of privacy.

From what I have read, Disney has recorded onto tickets some information about the geometry and shape of visitors' fingers for some years. It's their way to prevent ticket fraud or resale. They don't want you buying a 3 or 10 day pass and then handing it off to someone else to use on day 3 or 7. Apparently, photo identification checks are too costly & time-consuming.

From a story on

Disney's choice of a fingerprint sensor worries some privacy experts, especially when compared with a finger geometry reader. "It's more information," EPIC's Coney said. "That's why law enforcement agencies have relied on fingerprints for so long."

Disney’s Prunty [Kim Prunty, spokeswoman for Walt Disney World] said the company’s system will not be linked to a law enforcement fingerprint database. "Truly the only application is to link the ticket with the numerical value," she said.

Industry experts, including Anil Jain, who holds six patents in fingerprint matching, believe that Disney's new machines scan the entire fingerprint, even if they only store the numerical information.
Lumidigm’s Harbour said the system designed for his theme park client
is not compatible with a federal law enforcement database, saying, "Their protocols don't store images."

Raul Diaz, Lumidigm’s vice president of sales and marketing, said it is "easy" to change a system from capturing numerical information to
storing an entire fingerprint image. "It's a software option," Diaz said. "It's changing just one command." Diaz said few, if any,
companies store the fingerprint images due to privacy concerns.

Coney fears Disney could share the fingerprint information. "If they maintain
that data, it can be used for anything," Coney said. "If law enforcement shows up, they can gain access to it." Disney's privacy
policy says that it may disclose personal information when doing so can help "protect your safety or security."

Feel better about it? That doesn't make me feel more secure. (Yes, I am a product of the Warren Commission, Watergate and all that.) And Sea World and Busch Gardens have begun to use similar technology. Who is next? The liquor store, pharmacy, entrance to your high school?

The convergence of technologies is a major topic of interest to me of late. Whether it's tech coming together in your iPhone, or in your classroom or at the ticket booth, systems are talking to each other, pulling data (RSS will soon seem so crude), making connections and conclusions. It's what we want our students to do, but I'm not sure I want all my tech tools to do it about me.

But maybe it's just me being paranoid...


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