7-Eleven's New Age-Verification Provides Proof For Police, But Is Far From Perfect

7-Eleven on Monday (April 16) started a new age-check system, one that provides digital proof that a specific person's credentials were checked at a specific date and time. This will provide the nation's largest convenience-store chain with a new independent way to fight back when police say that an underage customer's driver's license had never been checked.

But it won't address many of today's more common age-ID problems, including waiving license checks if the associate thinks the person is old enough, license photos often being bad enough to fool weak authenticators, and under-age consumers using the driver's license of an older sibling. Still, 7-Eleven has crafted ways to deal with some of those gotchas with the new system.

The devices will partially automate the system by scanning a 2D barcode on the back of most driver's licenses. The system will perform that check without saving any personal data. Indeed, it will only record an otherwise meaningless number that represents the ID and the date/time, not dissimilar to the way a one-way hash turns a payment-card transaction into a token and one-way hash and a fingerprint biometric scan turns a fingerprint into a series of numbers that can later verify that fingerprint without storing the fingerprint itself.

The only way that number would have any meaning is if someone—such as law enforcement—brought the license in and said it had never been checked.

Monday marked the state-wide rollout of the system through the 1,600 7-Elevens in California. But this will hardly be a slow rollout. "If everything goes OK here (in California), we'll roll it out nationwide (to all 9,100 U.S. 7-Eleven stores) on May 14," said Keith Jones, the chain's senior director of regulatory affairs. California was actually not the first market for the NEC units, as 7-Eleven had "tested it in a couple of markets in Michigan" beforehand, Jones said.

A 7-Eleven statement said the "scan will verify the birth date stored on the card as well as the validity of the ID," but that's actually not the case. It doesn't even try to verify the birthdate—such as by accessing databases of birth records for various states—and assumes that the birthdate on the driver's license is correct. Nor does it validate that the license is not forged, other than being unable to read the 2D barcode if it was a weak forgery.

What the system—which will cost about $1 million—does do, however, is perform the math needed to determine if the date of birth makes the customer old enough to purchase the age-restricted item, such as alcohol, tobacco, lottery tickets and potential inhalants. Even though it's a relatively simple calculation, why risk that at 2 AM a tired store associate might miscalculate?

Jones said the systems will make age compliance more accurate, consistent and provable. But it won't address many of today's age-ID problems.

For example, one of the most common schemes among under-age consumers is to simply borrow the driver's license of an older sibling. In that case, the barcode would show an age that qualifies for the purchase and a barcode that is legitimate. "If someone uses his big brother's card, it won't catch that, so it's not perfect," Jones said.

Associates are supposed to check the license photo to try and match it to the customer, but that is not a very reliable system. First, in the case of a slightly older sibling, there is often enough of a resemblance to thwart the photo verification. Second, Jones pointed out that many license pictures do not look that much like the guest. Also, rushed associates may not make a careful comparison and people's looks can change sharply over the years that the license is valid, especially with the color of—and even the quantity of—facial hair.

NEC's system was integrated with—and programmed on top of—7-Eleven's proprietary, homegrown POS system and all stores—including franchisees—are required to install it. But franchisee resistance is not expected, Jones said, because the chain is picking up the full tab.

Standard 7-Eleven procedure is to card anyone who looks younger than 30 and to not bother scanning anyone else. 7-Eleven has added a POS mechanism to deal with that with the new system. An associate will have a visual override button, so that customers who clearly look of age are not bothered.

In theory, such an override button could undermine the effectiveness of this entire verification system. But Jones said the chain has tried to address that. "If a store fails our own audit or that of an enforcement agency, then we remove that (override) capability," he said. "One strike, you're out."

Given the likely level of unhappiness that a store manager would feel from such a penalty—especially given how much slower it could make operations and how many older customers would have to be bothered—that should provide an incentive for associates to be careful when choosing the over-ride button.

There's nothing like having to card senior citizens who want to buy a six-pack of beer to suck the convenience right out of a convenience store.