Touch it and you’ll pay

Diantha Parker Mar 12, 2008


Doug Krizner: Have you heard about biometric payment systems?
This is where you use your fingerprint together with a PIN number to pay for a retail purchase.

Royal Dutch Shell became the first major company in the country to test this technology in gas stations not too long ago. Ten stations in Chicago use the system. So we sent Diantha Parker from Chicago Public Radio to try it out.

Diana Parker: Shell’s testing a system called Pay By Touch. It picked Chicago because a big supermarket chain here, called Jewel, has it too. Jewel says it’s found that once customers sign up to use the technology, they stick with it. And customers only have to register once to use the system any place else that has it.

At Shell, you go into the station and enroll by registering two fingers — one is a spare in case of injury. The system takes your fingerprint and converts it into data points. They become an algorithm unique to you. That links to your financial information. Your touch and a seven-digit PIN — your phone number — activate the little screen out at the pump.

Parker: Just put in my phone number. One moment please…

Cab driver Sisay Grebregeziabher, was deciding whether to sign up, and had a question:

Sisay Grebregeziabher: I don’t know how this technology going to be working in cold weather. I don’t know if it’s going to be affected with the temperature, or down, or not.

Here’s what the manager, Mohammed Achmad, had to say:

Mohammed Achmad: Those things have a heater on ’em for the winter. I don’t know if you’d notice, if you put your finger there you can feel that it’s warm.

Parker Oh, let me see.

Achmad: Yeah, just put your finger over there . . .

Parker: Ooh, it is kind of nice.

Pay by Touch is still a struggling start-up company. Employees claim it owes them millions in back pay, and the company filed for Chapter 11 in December after laying off 250 people in the fall.

Pay by Touch says customers like Shell are unaffected by these issues. But its biggest problem may be that other companies see profit in this technology, too. They could use it in everything from credit cards to cell phones.

Here’s analyst Jeremy Grant of the Stanford Equity Group:

Jeremy Grant: It’s really set off a food fight, because you have both the banks and the mobile phone companies who are looking at this as a potential honeypot of new revenue.

Grant’s betting that biometric phones will win out. The added advantage? If your phone is lost or stolen, no one can unlock it without your very own fingerprint.

In Chicago, I’m Diantha Parker for Marketplace.

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