June 23, 2004

Employees and Biometrics

Kroger goes biometric with employees.

Fingerprint use worries employees

More firms use high-tech time clocks, track customer transactions, raising privacy fears

By Nick Bunkley / The Detroit News

Bridget A. Barrett / Special to The Detroit News

A wall-mounted machine reads Kroger employee Jamie Toskaj's passcode and index fingerprint as she punches out for her break.

Fingerprint IDs

Some businesses now use biometric time clocks that recognize employees' fingerprints. The technology also is being used at some Kroger's to cash identified customers' payroll checks and as a method of payment instead of writing a check. Is finger imaging a convenience or an invasion of privacy?

After working 14 years for Dr. Michael Schey, Anita Ridky resented it when he decided to install a new high-tech time clock that reads workers fingerprints and prevents co-workers from punching each other in and out.

Six months later, she is used to the machine but still doesnt like it.

To us, at first, it appeared like he wasnt trusting us, said Ridky, an assistant at Scheys Warren office. If he wasnt such a nice man, there would be at least two of us that probably would have quit over it.

Fingerprints long have been the key to unlocking security systems in top-secret government operations and high-tech Hollywood thrillers, and that technology now has made its way to employee time clocks and even some cash registers.

The devices use biometrics, the science of identifying people by fingerprints and other unique physical characteristics, which has become cheaper and more widely available in recent years. It is being used to keep sensitive medical files under wraps, make employee records more accurate and ensure customer transactions are secure.

For less than $100, a fingerprint reader can be installed on a computer to lock out unauthorized users. Other applications, including home security systems and keyless car ignitions, range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars.

Michigans largest grocery chain, Kroger Co., has installed $750 time clocks that verify employees identities by scanning their index finger as they punch in and out.

Kroger also uses finger imaging when customers want to cash payroll checks and, in the southwestern United States, to let repeat customers pay without having to get out cash or a credit card. And the devices eliminate one of the least secure but most popular methods of payment at the grocery store: checks.

That checks handled at least a dozen times through processing, said Ron Smith, president and chief executive of Biometric Access Corp., the Texas company that makes Krogers finger-imaging devices. With this system, theres no paper involved. You never have to hand somebody that youve never seen before all that financial and personal information.

But as Ridky shows, many people are hesitant to accept fingerprinting as part of their daily lives. Some worry their fingerprints, which often are used by police to trail criminals, will be used to run background checks.

Others fear a thief could gain access to their fingerprints and steal their identity, even though biometrics is being pitched as a way to stop such crimes. Stolen credit cards and bank account numbers can be canceled and replaced, many point out; fingerprints cant.

In theory it sounds good, but Id be concerned about privacy, said Jacquelyn Scieszka of Birmingham, who had a cart full of groceries at the Kroger store in her hometown. Its your body. You have to be careful.

At the store, employees arriving for their shift or heading out to lunch stop by a wall-mounted machine, enter a passcode and put their index finger on a small reader. The process usually takes less than 10 seconds, although as workers get used the machine, a few tries often are needed.

The system primarily is used to improve speed and accuracy, Kroger officials said, but it also ends a practice called buddy punching, in which workers punch the clock for friends arriving late or leaving early. Inflated time sheets are estimated to cost U.S. businesses billions of dollars each year.

Larry DiGasbarro, manager of the Birmingham Kroger, said buddy punching didnt appear to be a big problem at his store but that the new machine has reduced the number of mistakes he has to fix.

Its extremely accurate, said Gary Huddleston, director of administration for the chains Great Lakes division. Sometimes employees would punch in the wrong PIN. That takes time to correct those errors, as well as if theyre not caught, they could cost some money for the employee.

To allay customers and employees concerns about privacy and reduce the amount of space needed to store files on the system machines used by Kroger and most other businesses identify finger images by a few points rather than an entire print. Five points are used to find a match, DiGasbarro said, making the prints useless to police, who require nine and use thumbprints instead.

Biometric devices also are finding their way into businesses that traditionally have not had time clocks. Neal Katz, vice president of Count Me In LLC in suburban Chicago, said nearly all of his companys customers are small businesses like Schey, a podiatrist with five offices in Metro Detroit.

We thought it would be mostly blue collar, Katz said, but weve found that the majority of our customers are white collar.

Schey has a biometric time clock at each office and is able to see from his computer whos punched in where. Any discrepancies or missed punches for an employee are brought to his attention the next morning to be resolved while that days schedule is still fresh in everyones mind.

They feel a little bit of Big Brother initially, said Schey, who agreed to use the machine himself every day to show that hes comfortable with it. Its not used to abuse, its just used to be accurate.

You can reach Nick Bunkley at (313) 222-2293 or [email protected]

Fingerprint use worries employees - 06/23/04

Posted by Craig at June 23, 2004 04:45 PM