Three or four days a week, Darren Hiers gets lunch at a Sterling, Va., convenience store near the car dealership where he works. He grabs a chicken sandwich and a soda and heads to the checkout counter, where a little gadget scans his index finger and instantly deducts the bill from his checking account.
Hiers doesn't have to pull out his wallet to buy lunch -- and if it were up to him, he'd never have to write a check or swipe a credit card again.
The finger scan at the shop, known as a biometric payment system and made by a Herndon, Va., firm, is starting to be installed at convenience stores and supermarket chains, including Piggly Wiggly, another step in a revolution that is turning the human body into the ultimate identification card.
Already, faces and fingerprints are used to track visitors coming into the country. Computer passwords are being replaced by thumbprints at some companies and iris scans are giving consumers in England and Germany access to their bank accounts at ATMs.
The owner of BioPay LLC, which makes the technology used at the store, predicts the finger scan soon will be ubiquitous, offering speed and convenience for consumers. But civil libertarians have raised privacy concerns, citing some recent problems. In February, ChoicePoint Inc., a background-screening company that collects personal information -- including biometric data -- said it inadvertently sold more than 100,000 profiles to identity thieves.
Using BioPay "makes my life a little easier, especially if I just want to get in and get out," Hiers said.
That's exactly what BioPay President Tim Robinson likes to hear. His company says it has a database of 1.8 million customers. Most of those consumers are using BioPay's technology as an identification verification for merchants cashing paychecks -- an application intended to cut down on fraudulent checks.
Biometric technology makers say the biggest advantage their systems can offer is speed at the checkout counter. Executives of Pay by Touch say a transaction on their system can be completed in about 14 seconds, compared with 64 seconds to process a check and 48 seconds for a credit card.
BioPay's Robinson said the real motivation for retailers will be financial. Credit card companies often charge retailers a fee equal to almost 2 percent of the purchase price for each credit transaction. So for every $30 tank of gas bought with a credit card at the Sterling BP, the store pays a fee of 60 cents or more. But BioPay charges the store a flat 15-cent fee for each transaction, regardless of the size of the purchase.
Lee Tien, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy rights group in San Francisco, is concerned about the biometric payment trend. He worries that the technology could be compromised, exposing huge databanks of personal information. The information stored by biometric companies is in some ways far more valuable than that held by credit card firms, he said.