In an effort to make ID verification easier and more accurate for New York’s beverage alcohol retailers, Democratic state senator James Skoufis introduced Bill S1817 in 2021 that would allow the storage of biometric information, such as fingerprints, in a highly secure, encrypted database, which both spirits and tobacco sellers could access to determine someone’s age via a biometric scanning device. Originally referred to the state Senate’s Investigations and Government Operations Committee, the bill is now in the Rules Committee and could face a vote on the Senate floor during the 2024 legislative session.
New York liquor store owners are open to the option of biometric identity verification as an alternative to physical ID, but questions remain regarding its practicality. “The Retailers Alliance of New York is in favor of any technology that helps prevent alcohol from getting in the hands of minors,” says Jeff Saunders, president of the organization, which represents about 150 large beverage alcohol retailers from Long Island to Buffalo. “As long as we have an option to verify the ID of those consumers that do not want to participate, our members would make their own choice as to add biometrics in their store, assuming the technology is secure and provides a seamless interaction at the point of sale.”
While Saunders welcomes the technology, he’s skeptical about how it will be accepted. “We don’t want to force a customer to have their biometric information taken, and I don’t know if customers are going to willingly hand it in,” he says.
Michael Correra, executive director of the Metro Package Store Association, which represents about 1,000 retailers, and owner of Michael-Towne Wines & Spirits in Brooklyn, New York, agrees that biometric ID verification could have a positive impact on the industry. “It’s a great idea when technology helps prevent sales to minors,” Correra says, though he doesn’t want to have to store anyone’s information. “We all have issues from time to time with minors and fake IDs. It’s a little hard to fake your fingerprint. If the technology is there, then why not?”
Seattle’s CenturyLink and Safeco Fields implemented biometric scanning in 2018 for age verification and payment for beverage alcohol, while the Transportation Security Administration started using facial recognition in 2020 to verify passenger identification at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. The technology has a 100% verification rate. “It’s very innovative and a great idea,” Correra says. “Once the state passes a law like that, it’s an option. I am not an expert on counterfeit licenses, so anything that gives us another tool is a good thing for everybody.”
Privacy advocacy groups, such as Georgetown Law Center on Privacy and Technology, are critical of biometric scanning and the potential for privacy invasion. While dissemination or resale of biometric information is prohibited to activities such as advertising, marketing, or promotions, these records may be released pursuant to a court ordered subpoena or any statute authorizing the information release. “We’ve done a great job without it and will continue to do a great job without it,” the Retailers Alliance of New York’s Saunders says. “I don’t know how many customers want to sign up and give their fingerprints for something like this.”
If the bill passes, Saunders believes that biometric ID verification should be optional for New York retailers. “As long as we are given a choice, that’s fine,” he explains. “The most important thing is regulation of alcohol sales. Let history speak for itself. We have done an amazing job of controlling alcohol sales. Most stores have ID checkers. Driver’s licenses go through a scanner. The registered person has to look at it and compare it.”
Driver’s license scanners are much more accessible now that retailers can download them to a cell phone or an iPad. “They used to cost thousands of dollars, but now the price has dropped down to a couple hundred,” Correra says. He hopes the same pattern will apply to the biometric ID verification scanners.
The potential future of biometric ID verification hinges on several key variables. “If the New York State Liquor Authority obtains a legitimate vendor to install biometric ID verification, and it’s feasible financially, I am all for it,” Correra says. “But I don’t want to have to store anyone’s information. I don’t want anyone to ever say I had their ID and it got stolen. That’s big government for me. We use ID scanners right now, which is kind of new technology that wasn’t around 40 years ago. It is very helpful. It’s not 100% perfect, but it definitely works.”