biometrics fingerprints scanners universal studios theme parks

The World of Tomorrow: Theme Parks and Your Biometrics

I love theme parks – judge me all you want, but recently, I made my annual pilgrimage to Universal Studios in Florida and realized for the first time that I was giving them my biometrics! While I had done this process many times before, this time I took notice. I started researching the history of biometric use at theme parks and found that they were great early adopters of the technology. However, the deployments have not advanced much over the past few decades.

Theme Parks and Biometrics

Disney and Universal started using biometric identification in the late 1990’s. They required that you scan two fingers, in a peace sign, in order to gather data on the shape of your fingers. In the mid-2000’s they updated their process to one finger instead of two and added some extra security on the physical passes they issue.

Universal Studios issues paper passes, which you write your name on, and which has a magnetic strip on the back. This strip is what stores your pass information, and references your biometric fingerprint scan when you enter the park. According to Universal’s website, the scanner captures the swirls and arcs of your finger, in order to create a grid of intersecting points to reference. These points are encrypted and stored until matching takes place on re-entry to the park. They use this somewhat arduous process because of the history of fraud in ticket sales and resales. They want to ensure that the person who uses the ticket the first time is the one who uses it the whole time – no switching allowed!

Universal also likes to say that this process makes it faster to get into the park. Sadly, I can say with complete certainty this is not true. I have been to Universal many, many times over the past 10 years. It has never been easy. In theory, it should be a quick process – but only if your physical pass scans and your biometrics match on the first go. This almost never happens. When the system inevitably fails, a staff member has to come and reset it so you can try again…and again…and again. This actually causes very long lines to form around the entrances to the park. Each physical pass has to be scanned by a staff member, who then has to direct you to place your finger on the scanner – it seems like such a waste of human capital and time. In addition to this, people who have worn down hands from hard labor, woodworking, etc., will have even more trouble with the scanners. And all these good people want is to get into the park to have some fun!

On the flip side, you don’t actually have to scan your fingers. You can show your ID to prove who you are instead, but Universal doesn’t make that information widely available. In my opinion, showing your ID might actually be quicker than using their fingerprint scanners.

The Public’s Reaction

In addition to being a drag, people are also concerned about the privacy aspect of these scanners. Universal says they do not ever capture the complete print, and they don’t record or store an image, so your fingerprints can never be compromised from their system and privacy is maintained. This is definitely nice to hear, but the shortcomings of the system, in general, are too great to overlook.

As I was standing in yet another 30-minute line to get in during my last trip, I thought to myself how much easier it would be if this process was mobile and contactless, like the way Veridium deploys biometrics today. I am biased, but the thought of pulling out my phone to identify myself before even stepping onto the grounds of Universal was extremely appealing. To be able to walk through without smushing my finger onto a (probably very dirty) scanner multiple times was euphoric. But alas, I did what I had to do in order to grab a Butterbeer at Harry Potter World. Such is life.

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