Why you should be bothered by the fingerprint scans at 24 Hour Fitness

When I was in Phoenix this past weekend, I did the standard pretend-I-just-moved-here-and-get-a-trial-pass-to-24-Hour-Fitness. (It wasn’t my idea. I swear. But I didn’t complain.) The 24 Hour Fitness Sport Clubs are amazing. They have pools and full gyms and classes and hot tubs and studios and cycling — and they’re like $30/month. They don’t have the little luxuries like pull buoys and kickboards and towels, but in all fairness it’s likely no one at 24 Hour has ever heard of a pull buoy. I was genuinely hoping we would get one of the nice Sport clubs around here.

Except that apparently 24 Hour Fitness doesn’t use ID cards anymore. They instead require you to enter a 10-digit code and scan your fingerprint in order to enter the gym. So, now, I’m not as keen on the chain.

The fingerprint scanners are being rolled out nationwide and an informal poll on twitter suggests plenty of people have them — even if I hadn’t heard about it. And, while most (but not all) people are weirded out by it, very few are concerned.

Here’s why you should be bothered by the fingerprint scans at 24 Hour Fitness:

  • It has nothing to do with convenience for YOU — which is what lots of people have said. It has everything to do with cutting costs for them and limiting the amount of fraud, like when a store implements some super invasive anti-theft system “for your convenience.” Just say: we’re frisking you so that you don’t steal, which in theory should keep our costs down, because if we lose too much business through fraud then we’d have to raise prices, but we’re not going to lower them obviously with the installation of this system. Sucks to be you.
  • It’s a solution without a problem. This is a gym. Not the Pentagon. You could achieve virtually the same thing by just having people enter their 10-digit code and have their picture pop up on a screen. No fingerprint data necessary.
  • It’s all part of the normalization of a police state — and I’m well aware that’s something a totally crazy Berkeley hippie would say. But, that doesn’t mean it’s not partially true. I am not ok with requiring fingerprint checks to go to the doctor or get into your office (unless you do work at the Pentagon) or buy things from a store or exist in society. The logic behind 24 Hour’s system — it’s easier, it’s cheaper, it’s safer, don’t you want the convenience, don’t you want us to be able to weed out criminals easier, why are you against it unless you have something to hide — can be applied widely and poorly. What these little steps teach us is not to ask those questions. It normalizes the idea of putting your finger on a scanner and not wondering why you need to or what happens with the biometric data generated that scanner.
  • It’s your biometric data. Yes, they have your name and your credit card number already. But, that’s easier to fix or change if stolen. You know what you can’t change? (Well, easily.) Your fingerprint.
  • And, that brings us to the biggest problem. It’s your biometric data and you don’t know what they’re doing with it. Do you know if they plan to store it? Sell it? Track it? Keep it secure? The company says that it’s just a system that reads unique points on your finger and then deletes that information — though that doesn’t totally make sense, so if someone can explain the science there I’d appreciate it. So, the question is do you believe that and do you trust them. I don’t particularly think 24 Hour is lying, but I also don’t have any reason to think they’re not.

You can opt out, apparently, though I was told you couldn’t — so that’s not an encouraging opt-out. But, I don’t know why you should have to. If I joined, I would opt out. But, then again, I probably wouldn’t join.