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Biometrics at Pizza Hut and KFC? How Face Recognition and Digital Fingerprinting Are Creeping Into the U.S. Workplace

Biometric technology is being used to more closely track low-wage workers, already desperate in a bad economy.

All summer, Lathem Corp. product marketing manager Tony Burks has been on tour, pitching the biometric company's line of face-scanning time clocks at trade shows around the country. In his presentations Burks moves toward the small device and then backs away, showing how FaceIN uses some of the latest advances in face recognition technology to assess his identity from up to three feet away.  

FaceIN uses two cameras to map a worker's face, converting the width of their cheekbones, depth of their eye sockets, nose shape, and other unique facial features into an ID code. Every day after that, workers punch in by standing in front of a machine that recognizes them after a two-second face scan. Unlike the old-fashioned electronic password, FaceIN promises to tightly monitor when workers come and go, permanently banishing "buddy punching" from the workplace -- the time-honored practice of covering for a co-worker who may be running a few minutes late.

Identical twins can't con it, because, as Burks tells AlterNet over the phone, the two cameras that survey the face capture even slight variations in cheek plumpness and eyelid droop. As workers age, their FaceIN avatar ages with them. Changes to the face brought on by weight gain and weight loss are also clocked. "Let's say you gained 15 pounds next month," Burks says, "It would still recognize you."

Face-scanning time clocks were only introduced in the US in 2010, by companies like Lathem and Compumatic Time Recorders Inc, which outdoes Lathem by offering a time-clock that recognizes workers in the dark. But biometrics -- the science of determining identity through unique physiological features like fingerprints or the pattern of veins -- have been creeping into the American workplace for years. Fingerprint readers, retinal scans, and even machines that use palm pressure to ascertain identity are in use in workplaces ranging from the US Senate to hospitals to construction sites and restaurants.

As you can imagine, the applications vary depending on the work. Namely, the higher up you go on the income ladder, the more likely it is that biometrics are used to aid security or even protect privacy, like keeping hospital records safe. 

In low-wage jobs, advances in biometrics are starting to manifest in products that monitor and control employee behavior; devices meant to scare workers out leaving early to pick up the kids, running a few minutes late, or giving friends or family the occasional discount.

So far, FaceIN has made it into about 3,000 locations around the country, estimates Burks. A more pervasive biometric device is Digital Persona's U.are.U fingerprint reader, designed to integrate with point-of-sale (POS) systems (computerized cash registers). Cashiers, cooks and other service workers must sign in and out of work by pressing their fingerprints into the machine.

Like FaceIN, U.are.U is supposed to save companies money by tracking their low-wage employees more efficiently than passwords or keys. Since it's linked up to the register, it also prevents cashiers from hooking their friends up with unauthorized discounts. As a report on Digital Persona's website puts it, the device protects companies from such worker infractions as "...tardy arrivals, 'buddy punching,' 'lollygagging,' extended breaks, and early departures. Inventory shrink: unauthorized discounts and returns, and fraudulent gift card transactions."

A Digital Persona sales rep says U.are.U has taken off in the past few years, with some POS dealers refusing to move machines that aren't compatible with the technology.

Early this month Garden Fresh Restaurant Corp., which runs franchises of the buffet restaurants Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes, announced it had installed U.are.U at 122 locations across 15 states.