Disney’s finger scanners worry privacy advocates

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — 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 guests' 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 September, all of the geometry readers at Disney's four Lake Buena Vista 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, Walt Disney World spokeswoman. 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."

Too much information

But privacy advocates believe Disney has not fully disclosed the purpose of its new system. No signs are 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 rollercoasters.

"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."

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.

Biometrics expertise

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

After 9-11, the federal government sought Disney's advice in intelligence, security and biometrics, which allows computers to recognize and identify people 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.

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 has also 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.

No images stored

Disney's choice of a fingerprint scanner 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."

Prunty 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.

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."

But 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."

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

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Medill School of Journalism student Laura Spadanuta and Harvard University student Karen Harmel are fellows in the Carnegie/Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education. Their investigative project was done under supervision by The Associated Press.