Travel Industry Adopts Biometrics, but Will Customers?

Biometric identifiers like fingerprints, iris scans, and RFID bracelets are becoming more widespread at hotels, resorts, and airlines as reported by Stephanie Rosenbloom of The New York Times. Early adoption to track employees and merchandise is now being expanded to offer these businesses’ customers ways to supposedly “enhance” their experience. But I remain skeptical of how well such efforts will play out in the long run.

One of the major criticisms of biometrics is that they require users to give up some privacy and personal information, which is exactly the point and why they’re generally more secure than a photo ID. I counter that in situations where such security is necessary, adopting biometrics makes a lot of sense for both the authorities and the user. Global Entry speeds up border control and requires the same information — photo and passport number, for example — that you would need if you used the standard CBP lines.

You may need to undergo a more thorough background check and they’ll take your fingerprints, but the U.S. government already keeps tabs on where you’ve been and many people like me have already been fingerprinted as children. (It was common for the local sheriff’s department to set up booths at fairs to collect fingerprints in case your kid ran away or got lost.) The minimal additional loss of privacy is far outweighed by the benefits for me and for all travelers.

Other services offer convenience without really compromising your privacy. Starwood and other hotels are rolling out loyalty cards that double as permanent room keys so you don’t need to get a new one each time you visit. This is great for regular travelers who lose track of their keys, expedites check-in, and doesn’t necessarily need to be expanded into additional uses that might make you feel uncomfortable. Starwood doesn’t need to track me everywhere I go to make sure this card still works when I want to unlock my room.

Then we get to the less useful stuff. Redundant applications that attempt to fix things that were never broken are just annoying and make me shake my head because they create yet more ways to let things go awry. It reminds me of the urban legend that NASA spending millions to develop a zero-gravity pen while the Russians just used pencils. Maybe there were reasons to create a pen, but you get my point. (Da duh dah!)

I don’t understand why, for example, Seattle’s Hotel 1000 uses infrared scanners to detect body heat in rooms and alert housekeeping not to enter while guests are inside. There’s something called a Do Not Disturb sign. It’s a piece of paper you put over the handle or inside the lock. It is hard to overlook (it’s right on the handle) and costs 10 cents to make. I already have trouble with housekeeping ignoring these signs, even during the morning when there shouldn’t be any potential confusion about if I’ve already checked out and just forgot to put the sign back. I have little confidence that a high tech solution like this is going to be any better.

Scanning my fingerprints for a drink at the bar isn’t much better. Las Vegas resorts with over 1,000 rooms seem to keep track of guests just fine by asking them for their last names and room numbers. I’ve never had a problem ordering a mojito at the pool this way without my ID, though I bring it just in case. And if I can’t remember my room number, then I probably should take a break from the sun and booze.

Finally, we get to the danger zone, which I expect will fail buy may just succeed depending on how well companies, in their lust for ever more information about their customers, tap into a desire for vain self-expression.

There is the example of the Ushuaia Ibiza Beach Hotel that links RFID wristbands to a guest’s Facebook account so they can scan them at signposts throughout the property to send automatic updates to their friends. I am the first to admit that I can get carried away on Facebook or Twitter sometimes, but you can bet I will put a block on someone who sends me a dozen updates a day from their vacation as he or she moves from breakfast to beach to spa to pool. One or two tweets on the highlights are sufficient, and you can do that with your own phone.

The hotel’s director of marketing says: “We can’t disconnect from social media even when we’re on a beach in the Mediterranean.”

Actually, we can. They just won’t let us. I don’t see how this wristband model really helps anyone except the hotel, but maybe I just don’t understand the other socially connected members of my generation. I’m the kind of guy who was a nerd for most of his life (still am, but I was really geeky) and even I think stuff like Google Glass looks stupid. I don’t need, nor do I want, to be connected all the time, and some of my favorite resorts actually have policies against telephones on the property.

I think biometrics have a lot of potential to improve the efficiency of travel without too much personal sacrifice. Companies are still figuring out which services are useful and which are more hassle than they’re worth. I expect we’ll see complicated systems like the body heat detectors disappear unless sensors and their monitoring systems become incredibly inexpensive.

Other stuff, like the always-on social media tracking systems will probably persist, but I don’t expect to see widespread requirement that people participate. There will simply be too many people who aren’t interested, and like the grocery store cashier who just waves a blank loyalty card, we’ll probably see workarounds to accommodate them.

I’m curious to hear what your experiences have been? Do you actually see any benefit from these kinds of services? What other variations have you spotted?

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  • dude26

    I have no problem with Biometrics, they make my life easier. In israel (where I’m based..) you can get through border control with a palm print recognition and it’s SUPER fast, saves me so much time travelling….

  • DaveB

    The other day I read an article about heat sensors, don’t remember where, but the point of the article was that heat sensors would be used to help control the temperature in the room and not only turn it down when there are no people in the room. It also said that they could be used to learn your preferences and turn the heat or air on when you return to the room. Just another view.