Thursday, February 02, 2006

Electronic Moolah

Does a life of ease mean an invitation to Big Brother?

by Carla Diana

ROYAL OAK, MICHIGAN, September 10, 1997 -- The [Image]
promises seemed impossible to fulfill. A piece of
plastic would work like cash. You'd be able to have bills
paid automatically, without the hassle of fussing with
those primitive, perforated handwritten checks. You
wouldn't have to stop for tolls. Someday you might not
even have to check out items at the grocery store -- the
amount could be automatically detected from your shopping
cart and deducted from your individual account. A
magnetic reader would see who you are, and everyday life
would continue its approach toward "ease."

Just a decade ago, all this stuff seemed like sci-fi to
the average American, but today many of these automatic
systems have already been implemented. But are we really
ready for all these anonymous transactions?

It seemed to start with "direct deposit," which made a
marked difference in people's lives by automatically
putting paychecks into people's bank accounts. There used
to be one day a week when employees lined up at the bank
during lunch hour to cash or deposit checks. Stomachs
grumbled, feet ached and workers kvetched about taxes
while bank employees clammered to handle the overload of
customers. Direct deposit gave people with weekly
paychecks 50 lunch hours back. What was not to like?

Then came the use of debit cards to pay for purchases.
Suddenly, the supermarket checkout experience became
slicker. You could leave the house with just a plastic
card in your back pocket and come home with all the
groceries you needed. No more writing checks or holding
off on that box of Froot Loops because you forgot to stop
by the bank today to get dirty, crumpled cash. Heck, with
all this automatic deduction, you can already go for
months without making a single in-person bank transaction
or putting your John Hancock on a single check. (Not to
mention avoiding the added work of mailing checks with
your bills or filling out withdrawal slips. And licking
stamps? Yuck!)

The latest addition to our society's collection of
quasi-extra sensory money exchanges is EZ Pass. At first
glance, it's a wonderful thing. The electronic reader,
which lets drivers go through tolls without having to
throw cash into a tollbooth, works like Drano to unclog
our highways and eliminates the panic of wondering
whether you can get your wallet out and your window open
in time for the toll. Though the current system has you
stop briefly while a gate lifts, eventually drivers will
be able to whiz by without stopping or slowing down.

Designers and visionaries salivate at the high-tech
possibilities: public phones, parking meters, and movie
tickets can be automated. New applications crop up every
day, like the Speedpass which lets Mobil customers fill
'er up with just a wave of a magnetic keychain. And the
potential goes beyond money transfer to the realm of
identification for security purposes.

What could be bad? Lots. For starters, we may start
seeing innovative scammers cropping up every few months,
and victims can lose money without knowing what hit them.
Imagine the criminal who manages to duplicate the EZ Pass
reader to skim a nickel off each car that passes through.
EZ Pass just might be too easy -- after all, how many
people will bother to meticulously check each toll
deduction or keep track of how many tolls were passed?
Personal debit cards offer a nightmare on a grander scale
if charges can be deducted just by having someone pass
through a scanner. The years ahead pose great
electronic-watchdog challenges to the FBI.

Speaking of surveillance, what about our own personal
privacy? With all these electronic scanning contraptions,
detailed information about where we are, where we're
headed and what we ate for breakfast will be floating
around. As the devices get more sophisticated, the
information will become more specific. One
design-award-winning product concept last year featured a
doorknob with an electronic eye that allows access when
it reads an authorized fingerprint and matches it with a
database. The possiblity of being spied on will be more
frightening than ever, way beyond the situation that
already exists with today's extensive use of credit
cards.

If the invasions weren't offensive enough, consider the
possibility for nuisance marketing. In this land of
opportunity someone somewhere will find ways to take this
information and use it to turn a profit, so the time we
save at the checkout counter will be spent sifting
through junkmail, unsolicited e-mail and telemarketing
phone calls.

Reducing wasted time and aggravation may be a welcome
improvement, even if it does mean losing that warm, fuzzy
feeling of interacting with a human being. But before we
buy into electronic cash and send all our cashiers to the
unemployment office, it just might be worth an extra
effort to keep a few good ol' greenbacks floating around.

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This column is an etown.com exclusive.

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