The word "fingerprint" may conjure up images of crime and police stations. But finger imaging is the latest technology that can speed identity verification or make shopping a hassle-free experience.

A finger image is a digitized image of the index finger. It is entered into a computerized system that links the image to that person's bank account, credit or debit card or even food-stamp account.

For the Kroger supermarket chain, which operates 1,200 stores in 31 central and western U.S. states, it was an intriguing idea. "Several-years ago, the state of Texas approached us to help pilot a finger-imaging test connected with the Lone Star card, which allows customers who are eligible for food stamps to get those food stamps electronically through the Lone Star card," he said.

Gary Huddleston is Southwest Manager of Consumer Affairs for Kroger Markets. "And the idea was to use finger imaging as a process to eliminate further fraud in the food stamp program," he explained.

Texas did not continue the project for budgetary reasons. But Mr. Huddleston says Kroger has decided to test the system in three of its Texas stores. "Our senior customers really like it because of the security that it offers," he said. "And, if their checkbook or credit card is stolen, they certainly can not use it at Kroger. And they like that feature. Many of our female customers like it because they do not have to bring a purse into the store. They can leave their purse locked in their car trunk or wherever. And they like that security part of it."

Finger imaging is part of a relatively new technology called "biometrics", which identifies people by using their individual biological traits. Identification may be made by retinal or iris scanning, fingerprints, or face recognition.

Biometrics Access Corporation chief executive Ron Smith, whose company has developed one of several finger-imaging systems in the market, says the technology means a faster store checkout with fewer hassles.

Mr. Smith says finger imaging also helps prevent fraud. "With this system, once you enroll the information into the system, the finger image is used to verify your identity and it makes it extremely difficult for someone to become you," said Ron Smith.

Mr. Smith expects other shops and department stores will look seriously at the finger imaging system. He predicts its use for more than just financial transactions. "We have other companies using it for their employees to clock in and clock out," he said. "Instead of using a time card they use their finger to verify they are the persons clocking in and out."

Mr. Smith says the finger image and information linked to it are secure and not shared with other users. But, Electronic Frontier Foundation lawyer Lee Tien worries about consumer privacy. "The allure of biometrics as a technology in the commercial arena is closely tied to its ability to reliably distinguish people, reliably establish - if not unique identification - at least very good authentication of identity," he said. "Now this carries with it inherent privacy concerns because one of the basic issues in privacy today more than in the past is the ability to track or monitor and then log people's activities, transactions and so forth in their daily lives. "

But Mr. Tien acknowledges the appeal of finger-imaging and predicts its convenience probably will outweigh the risks in what he terms low-security environments like supermarkets or private companies.