Magnetic-stripe payment cards are outmoded. The solution - tur-ning them into smart cards with embedded computer chips - is well on the way.

And as the magnetic stripe presumably fades into oblivion, such conventional wisdom holds, so too should personal identification numbers - those precarious, easily compromised links between cardholders and their plastic.

Replacements for PINs abound in the biometric realm: signature verification, voice recognition, retinal and iris scans, hand geometry, and finger imaging. All have been technically proven. The last is probably the most familiar and closest to being commercially viable in volume- transaction settings like banking and retailing, but for the nagging argument that it smacks of Big Brother, that a privacy-obsessed public would recoil or rebel.

Not true, according to a poll last July by Opinion Research Corp. of Princeton, N.J. Clear majorities of the more than 1,000 representative adults in the telephone survey responded favorably to several questions posed about fingerprinting. And these questions had to do with maintaining the prints in central data bases; storage of people's prints only in their own pockets, on smart cards, would presumably be less of a concern.

The survey was commissioned by National Registry Inc. of St. Petersburg, Fla., a vendor of finger-imaging technology and hardly a disinterested party. But to establish credibility, NRI used an independent research firm and retained Alan F. Westin, a Columbia University law professor and renowned expert on privacy issues, as adviser on the project. A summary of results was published in the October-November edition of Mr. Westin's newsletter, Privacy & American Business.

Among the findings:

55% said they had been fingerprinted at some time. (Extrapolated to the U.S. population, that would be 105 million people over age 18.) Of this majority, seven out of eight believed the taking of their prints was appropriate, 11% said it was not, and 2% had no opinion.

86% said they had read or heard about false-identity frauds, as in applying for welfare benefits, cashing checks, or using stolen credit cards.

50% said they would be "very comfortable," and 25% "somewhat comfortable," with having their fingerprints scanned and stored in a computer for comparison at a later time to prevent others from assuming their identities.

81% believed finger imaging is justified for screening applicants for government benefits, 77% for identifying persons cashing high-value personal checks, and 76% for identifying those making major credit card purchases.

83% said finger imaging plays a protective role and rejected the idea that it treats people like presumed criminals; at least 90% strongly supported various "fair information practices," such as requiring the individual's approval before an organization gained access to a stored finger image.

Overall, the survey indicated "broad public awareness of identity fraud practices in the U.S. and high general approval" of finger imaging, Privacy & American Business said. The anti-fingerprint sentiments of civil libertarians and privacy advocates are "not widely (held) at all."

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