ORLANDO — 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 September, 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.
"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."
Industry insiders say Walt Disney World has the nation's largest single commercial application of biometrics, a tool that teaches computers to recognize and identify individuals based on their unique characteristics.
And 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.
Privacy advocates believe Disney has not fully disclosed the purpose of its new fingerprint-scanning 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.
"The government was very aware of what Disney was doing," said Jim Wayman, director of the National Biometric Test Center at San Jose State University. 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."
After the Sept. 11 terror attacks, one Disney executive, Gordon Levin, was part of a group convened by the Federal Aviation Administration and other agencies to help develop a plan for "Passenger Protection and Identity Verification" at airports, using biometrics.
Levin also was part of a group asked by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the National Security Agency to develop national standards for the biometrics industry.
Former Disney employees have filled some of the most sensitive positions in the U.S. intelligence and security communities. For example:
Eric Haseltine left his post as executive vice president of research and development at Walt Disney Imagineering in 2002 to become associate director for research at the NSA, and he is now National Intelligence Director John Negroponte's assistant director for science and technology.
Bran Ferren has served on advisory boards for the Senate Intelligence Committee and offered his technological expertise to the NSA and the DHS.
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."
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.
Industry experts, including Anil Jain, who holds six patents in fingerprint matching, believe Disney's new machines scan the entire fingerprint, even if they only store the numerical information.
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."