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Disney scanning raises eyebrows
Theme parks begin to collect fingerprint information on visitors

Karen Harmel / AP | September 25 2006

Walt Disney World, which bills itself as one of the happiest and most magical places anywhere, also may be one of the most closely watched and secure. The nation's most popular tourist attraction is beginning to scan your fingerprint information.

For years, Disney has recorded onto tickets the geometry and shape of visitors' fingers to prevent ticket fraud or resale, as an alternative to time-consuming photo identification checks.

By the end of the month, all of the geometry readers at Disney's four Orlando theme parks will be replaced with machines that scan fingerprint information, according to industry experts familiar with the technology. The four parks attract tens of millions of visitors each year.

"It's essentially a technology upgrade," said Kim Prunty, spokeswoman for Walt Disney World. The new scanner, like the old finger geometry scanner, "takes an image, identifies a series of points, measures the distance between those points, and turns it into a numerical value."

She added, "To call it a fingerprint is a little bit of a stretch."

Privacy advocates disagree. They believe Disney has not fully disclosed the purpose of its new system. There are no signs posted at the entrances detailing what information is being collected and how it is being used. Attendants at the entrances will explain the system, if asked.

"The lack of transparency has always been a problem," said Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. She said Disney's use of the technology "fails a proportionality test" by requiring too much personal information for access to roller coasters.

"What they're doing is taking a technology that was used to control access to high-level security venues and they're applying it to controlling access to a theme park," Coney said.

George Crossley, president of the Central Florida ACLU, said, "It's impossible for them to convince me that all they are getting is the fact that that person is the ticket-holder."

Disney's Prunty downplayed privacy issues, saying the scanned information is stored "independent of all of our other systems" and "the system purges it 30 days after the ticket expires or is fully utilized." Visitors who object to the readers can provide photo identification instead - although the option is not advertised at park entrances.

She said the new system will be easier for people to use and will reduce wait times. The old machines required visitors to insert two fingers into a reader that identified key information about the shape of the fingers. The new machines scan one fingertip for its fingerprint information. Prunty said the company does not store the entire fingerprint image, but only numerical information about certain points.

The technology ensures that multiday passes are not resold, Prunty said. A one-day, one-park ticket to Walt Disney World costs $67, but the daily price falls dramatically for a 10-day pass. She said multiday pricing is the reason for the scanners. "It's very important that a guest who purchases the ticket is the guest who uses it," she said.

Scanning fingerprint information isn't new to private businesses or the government, which scans fingerprints of visitors entering the country.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, the federal government sought out Disney's advice in intelligence, security and biometrics, a tool that teaches computers to recognize and identify individuals based on their unique characteristics.

The government may have wanted Disney's expertise because Walt Disney World has the nation's largest single commercial application of biometrics, said Jim Wayman, director of the National Biometric Test Center at San Jose State University.

"The government was very aware of what Disney was doing," he said.

Industry insiders say Disney has expressed interest in an even more advanced form of biometric technology - automated face recognition. It has been touted as a way to pick criminals and terrorists out of a crowd.

Minnesota-based Identix Inc., which has contracts with the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, has been in contact with Disney.

Another company, California-based A4Vision Inc., confirmed meeting with Disney officials in the past year to present its A4 facial recognition system. "They were interested," said A4Vision spokeswoman Suzanne Mattick. A4Vision is funded in part by the Defense Department and In-Q-Tel, the CIA's venture capital firm for new technologies.

Prunty, however, said face recognition is "not something we're currently looking at."

Although Disney will not disclose who makes its fingerprint scanners, biometrics experts said the new technology is likely provided by New Mexico-based Lumidigm Inc.

That company also has received funding from the CIA as well as the National Security Agency and the Defense Department, according to founder and CEO Bob Harbour.

Harbour did not confirm or deny the company's role as the provider of Disney's new scanners but said it has a "major theme park" as a client.


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