Disneyland and Fingerprints

It may surprise many people but the Walt Disney Corporation is an enthusiastic and early adopter of biometric technology. All the way back in 1996, Disney added a magnetic stripe to their park pass. Instead of the barcoded laminate photo IDs traditionally used, the new pass had no photo and minimal printed information. The magnetic stripe stored pass information plus it added one new piece of information: a biometric “finger scan” (fingerprint).

 
 

When a guest presented the pass at a turnstile, they were asked to insert the pass into a reader, and then to make a “peace sign” with their index and middle fingers and insert those fingers into a scanning area. During the scan, a camera took a picture of several points on the index and middle fingers and converted the image to a template. By 2006, the system was upgraded to a single finger scanner. Instead of calling it a fingerprint, they call it a “Ticket Tag” which sounds much friendlier.

Disney didn’t provide clear information on what was happening when a guest made the “peace sign” and inserted their fingers into the reading machine. Using the phrase “Ticket Tag” or “finger scan” instead of “fingerprint” seemed evasive to some people. They assumed that the company was fingerprinting park visitors and matching those fingerprint to the pass – and perhaps even other databases, such as criminal records, sex offender registries, and terror watch lists. There was a lot of misinformation about the program.

In 2012 they converted to RF-ID readers which eventually became the Magic Band. But to this day they still use fingerprints. When you buy a ticket they take your fingerprint and when the ticket is used, you present your fingerprint.

So why on earth is Disneyland collecting fingerprints? Well, it turns out that multi-day park passes are heavily discounted. So a ten day park pass costs a lot less than ten one-day passes or even two five-day passes. People would buy the longer passes, use them for a few days and then resell them. So Disney needed a way to prevent ticket reselling and sharing. The fingerprint connects the ticket to the individual who purchased it and prevents tickets from being shared or resold.

Nobody loves being fingerprinted but people generally are accepting of fraud and theft prevention. It’s a tricky balance. The park doesn’t store the fingerprints. And, according the their privacy policy, guests can opt-out. If you don't want to use Ticket Tag (fingerprints), you can simply carry and show a photo ID that matches the name identified with your ticket.

At the beginning this move generated some degree of controversy (adopting new technology almost always will). Disney defined an “adult” park guest as being 10 or older. The American Civil Liberties Union called the addition of biometric technology “a step in the wrong direction.” EPIC – the Electronic Privacy Information Center – issued an attack on Disney. It called the practice “a gross violation of privacy rights,” as there was little notice given to consumers as to why their biometric information was being collected, how it was used, and the protection afforded to the data. On the other hand, they started collecting fingerprints back in 1996 and the system is still in use today and is widely accepted.

The system is voluntary and optional and Disney is transparent about how the data is used. Given all that, I think this is a reasonable use of identity technology.