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Medill Privacy in an Age of Security

Northwestern University's News21 fellows look at America's new system of surveillance, developed by the government with the help of private data mining firms after 9/11. One story reports on how the Social Security Administration's massive databases are being used in homeland security investigations; another uncovers new details about a secretive program in which the Department of Education shared personal information on hundreds of student loan applicants with the FBI. Two immersive interactive presentations explore the digital trails we leave behind in our daily lives and government data-mining initiatives that might incorporate information about you.

Walt Disney World: The Government's Tomorrowland?

By Karen Harmel, September 1, 2006

Walt Disney World, which bills itself as one of the happiest and most magical places anywhere, also may be one of the most closely watched and secure.

Image: Disney: Walt and Mickey
Statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse at Walt Disney World. (Laura Spadanuta for News21)

Walt Disney World, which bills itself as one of the happiest and most magical places anywhere, also may be one of the most closely watched and secure. And control over park entrances is getting even tighter: the nation's most popular tourist attraction now is beginning to scan visitor 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, which attract tens of millions of visitors each year, 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." She added, "To call it a fingerprint is a little bit of a stretch."
Prunty said the new system will be easier for guests 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.

Theme park consultant Arnold Tang said parks like Disney use the technology because it is more convenient for guests than showing photo identification and more accurate for theme parks, which have a significant ticket fraud problem.

“There’s a lot of subjectivity,” Tang said about traditional identification checks. “People can look at a photo and identify it differently.”

Prunty said the technology ensures that multiday passes are not resold. A one day, one-park ticket to Walt Disney World costs $67, but the daily price falls dramatically for a 10-day pass. Prunty 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.

Image: Disney: Scanner Small
These new finger scanners will replace Walt Disney World's geometry readers by the end of September. (Karen Harmel for News21)

However, the use of this technology has riled privacy advocates, who believe Disney has not fully disclosed the purpose of its new system. There are no signs posted at the entrance detailing what information is being collected and how it is being used. Attendants at the entrance 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, who added that Disney's use of technology "fails a proportionality test" by requiring too much personal information for theme park access.

"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.

"It's impossible for them to convince me that all they are getting is the fact that that person is the ticket-holder," said George Crossley, president of the Central Florida ACLU.

But 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 the park entrance.

Scanning fingerprint information isn't new to private businesses or the government, which scans fingerprints of visitors entering the country.

But surprisingly, after the Sept. 11 attacks the federal government sought out Disney’s advice in intelligence, security and biometrics, a tool that teaches computers to recognize and identify individuals based on their unique characteristics.

The federal government may have wanted Disney's expertise because Walt Disney World is responsible for the nation's largest single commercial application of biometrics, said Jim Wayman, director of the National Biometric Test Center at San Jose State University.

"The government was very aware of what Disney was doing," he said. "Everybody's interested in a successful project."

Industry insiders say 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.

Image: Disney: Geometry Reader
Finger geometry reader at the Walt Disney World entrance gates in Florida. (Karen Harmel for News 21)

Minnesota-based Identix Inc., which has contracts with the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, has been in contact with Disney.

"Because it's an ongoing initiative, Identix is not at liberty to talk about it," said company spokesman Meir Kahtan said of the work with Disney on a face recognition system.

Another company, California-based A4Vision Inc., confirmed meeting with Disney officials in the past year to present its A4 facial recognition system to Disney. “They were interested," said A4Vision spokeswoman Suzanne Mattick.

Prunty, however, said face recognition is “not something we’re currently looking at.”

A4Vision is funded in part by the Department of Defense and In-Q-Tel, the CIA's venture capital firm for new technologies.

Although Disney will not disclose who makes its fingerprint scanners, biometrics experts said the new technology is likely provided by New Mexico-based Lumidigm Inc.

Lumidigm also has received funding from the CIA as well as the National Security Agency and Department of Defense, according to founder and CEO Bob Harbour.

The government has looked to Disney for advice on biometrics in the past. After 9/11, one Disney executive was part of a group convened by the Federal Aviation Administration and other federal agencies to help develop a plan for "Passenger Protection and Identity Verification" at airports, using biometrics.

The executive, Gordon 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.

Levin is not the only Disney employee to lend his expertise to the government.

Former Disney employees have filled some of the most sensitive positions in the U.S. intelligence and security communities. 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.

Another former Disney employee, Bran Ferren, has served on advisory boards for the Senate Intelligence Committee and offered his technological expertise to the NSA and the DHS.

Lumidigm's Harbour did not confirm or deny the company's role as the provider of Disney’s new scanners but said it has a "major theme park" as a client.

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."

Disney’s 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 that Disney's new machines scan the entire fingerprint, even if they only store the numerical information.
Lumidigm’s 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."

However, 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." Diaz said few, if any, companies store the fingerprint images due to privacy concerns.

Coney fears Disney could share the fingerprint information. "If they maintain that data, it can be used for anything," Coney said. "If law enforcement shows up, they can gain access to it." Disney's privacy policy says that it may disclose personal information when doing so can help "protect your safety or security."

While Walt Disney World in Orlando is the only Disney location to use this biometric technology at its entrances, other theme parks – such as Sea World and Busch Gardens – have begun to use similar technology.
Civil liberties experts fear the use of biometrics by government and private companies will escalate without proper privacy protections. But industry officials say Disney’s extensive use of the technology is a sign of things to come.

"It helps public perception to have biometrics deployed on a widespread basis," said Joseph Campbell, the former chairman of the Biometrics Consortium. "The more people use biometrics, the more people are comfortable with it."

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