The Walt Disney Corporation has started fingerprinting all visitors to their parks. They claim, incorrectly, that the fingerprint scans can’t be turned into pictures of fingerprints.
True Americans understand that fingerprinting is for criminals. A presumption of guilt — of criminality — underlies a company taking your fingerprints. In “Welcome to Disney World, please let us scan your fingers,” Eric Rescorla lays out that Disney’s motivation is to “price discriminate.” Being at a Disney park for 3 days is $171, 10 days is $208. So a neighborly thing to do is sell or give away the second half of your 10 day ticket. This is very similar to why airlines check your ID: Not for security, but to allow them to maintain high prices on one-way tickets. Closely related is Andrew Odlyzko‘s work, which I’ve discussed in “Economics of Price Discrimination.”
If I were Disney management, famed for customer service and stinginess, I might realize that the deterrence value of the system is high enough to achieve the effect that I want. Even if I don’t turn the system on. I don’t need to actually use the fingerprints, deal with the errors (what the biometric industry cutely calls the “insult factor), or worry about speed.
This could be security theater at its most useful. You deploy a bunch of fingerprint readers. Then you watch ticket scalping fall through the floor. It’s a cheap way to protect their revenue stream. Too bad about the unfortunate societal side effects.
So let me talk about the societal impact of treating your customers like criminals.
The first impact is that you’ll raise a lot of people’s blood pressure, and get them to swear they’ll never go to Disneyworld again. That’s ok, I haven’t been in twenty years anyway. So that’s probably small.
Second, and more important is the creeping normalization of fingerprinting. We’ve already seen that such systems, even in tightly controlled conditions, produce some problems. (I’m actually surprised at how few problems are reported, but if a US Visitors’ fingerprints don’t match the computer, the problem is a large one.) This normalization is probably intended. There are alternate systems, such as hand geometry, which do as well or better, are less stigmatic, and are harder to cheat. So why don’t we see more of them?
Some people might ask, what’s the problem with using fingerprints?
There are several. The first is that fingerprints carry a mystique and stigma which interferes with reasoning about them. That your fingerprint is unique does not mean that a computerized fingerprint reader will properly and uniquely identify you. You leave your fingerprints everywhere. This is what makes them useful to law enforcement. But it also makes it easy to forge. Fingerprints are also hard to change. And finally, even if fingerprints are easy to steal…well, sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.