Image as Currency: Using A Photo of Jonathan Stark’s Starbucks Card to Buy Food

I first learned of Jonathan Stark after coming across his great book: Building iPhone Apps with HTML, CSS and Javasript. His walkthrough was incredibly helpful as part of my introduction to things like jQTouch and the PhoneGap framework.

Today, I happened across a blog post he made regarding the Starbucks mobile app. For those unfamiliar with the app, it’s something you download to your mobile device… and it hooks into your Starbucks card – a loyalty program that gives you discounts on drinks, free refills, etc). The card itself is something you add funds to, and you pay for your purchases using this card (in lieu of, say, a credit or debit card).

The Starbucks app takes things a step further, removing the need entirely for a physical card. In addition to helping you locate nearby Starbucks locations… the app also stores a reference to your account. So instead of digging around in your wallet for a card, you can just pull up the app and scan your barcode at the register.

Recently, Starbucks released an Android version of the app. Check it out:

So here’s where it gets interesting. Jonathan, being a guy who works a lot with mobile dev, owns several phones. On installing the app on his Nexus S, he realized that Starbucks only allowed his card to be associated with one phone.

To get around this problem, he set up the app on his iPhone. Then, he took a photo of the payment screen (which features the barcode) and saved this to his Nexus S. When he went to Starbucks later, he just pulled up the photo on his phone, and scanned it:

The next time I went to Starbucks, I launched the [photo] gallery app on my Nexus S and successfully paid for my venti Pike Place with the photo. In other words, I bought a coffee with a picture. The ramifications of this sorta blew my mind. I mean, I had just paid for physical goods with a digital photo.

In a playful move, he loaded up his card with $30 and shared the screenshot on his blog. Readers are invited to download the photo, and to try to use it at a location near them.


I came across his post right around lunchtime, so I decided to give it a whirl. I copied the image over to my Dropbox account, and it loaded up perfectly.


Then I walked over to a nearby Starbucks, just down the street from where I work.


I looked around for something cheap, since I didn’t want to use a ton of money. I ended up getting a Tiramisu Cake Pop, which went for maybe $1.50. I waited until I got to the register to pull up the image, and of course the cashier couldn’t see that I was going to Dropbox and not the actual app. From there, I just put my phone near the scanner… and I was done. The whole transaction, start to finish, was pretty fast.

Unless there was some specific personal info tied to the barcode, there’s no way Starbucks could have known that I wasn’t Jonathan. I wonder if, somewhere on the back end, they have some monitoring that would show multiple charges from multiple locations (similar to what Banks and Credit Card companies have, to signal theft).

There’s a part of me that wonders if, technically, I’ve committed some kind of crime. I’ve taken someone else’s payment method and used it to pay for goods/services, under a fraudulent pretense. If Jonathan lives somewhere other than Illinois, perhaps it’s now a Federal thing since I’ve crossed state lines. Well… in the event this blog post suddenly disappears, you’ll know the reason why.

If you’re curious how the card experiment is going, you can follow along via Twitter. At the time of this post, there’s $23.31 left on the card.

// Edit: Wow, by the time I’m posting this, the original $30 is gone. However, Jonathan added another $50 to the card, so that others on the West Coast could give it a try.

Like Jonathan, I’m a little wowed by the notion of an image as currency. I guess that’s really all a barcode is, at the end of the day. And while it’s one thing for him to “fake” the process using an image, it feels incredibly strange to duplicate the process myself, using his information.

It’s making me think a lot about how malleable our identities (and our currencies) really are. Once upon a time, we paid for things using stones and beads, animal skins and gold. Eventually, we moved on to paper currency, and we’re now at a point where we’re using cards in lieu of paper, barcodes in lieu of cards.

We’re at a point where QR codes are becoming mainstream, where the virtual currency Bitcoin is attempting to take hold, and where something as simple as a .jpg can pay for food. The future is pretty crazy.

And delicious. Crazy and delicious.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Very cool article, Felix. One thing I have to point out though is that we’ve been paying for things with images for a little over three centuries now with the use of paper (and coin-based) currency. There’s only a couple of things (that I can think of) that distinguish using the QR code versus the traditional approach. 1. There’s a physical exchange when paying with cash and 2. The money in the Starbucks account is (technically) associated with an ID. Other than that there’s really no difference. When a dollar bill is accepted as payment it’s due to its image as a dollar bill. We’ve just moved the image to a digital format. But that doesn’t make it any less cool.

    waltgrogan Reply


  2. Well I think the whole is a flaw in the system. There seems to be no additional check whatsoever if the person is the real one by entering a pin or at elast checking the position. It would be better if the real app displayd a new barcode each time where loaction info is integrated, so the counter can verify this.This is no pament system, its just a digital format of an ID card.

    Steve Reply


  3. I think there is a mistake in thinking that the image is the currency. The image is a device for giving access to the currency. Maybe the fact that the definition of currency has been evolving so far away from the ancient times of exchanging beads is creating confusion, but believe that the concept of currency in attributing a value to an item that it does not possess intrinsically. The image is not being exchanged for goods. Your debit or credit card is not being exchanged for goods. The currency is virtual. SB Card, QR Code, Credit Card or Debit, these are devices to access currency. Not the currency itself.Further more, if you have the capability to make a passable copy of the image base currency that is paper and coins, these would be considered counterfeit. The copied image of the QR Code is not, although the unauthorised use of the image could constitute fraud. Don’t know if SB has a T&C for this but Jonathan has given authorization. I think too that he can do this because his exposure is limited to what he puts in the account.

    Colin Turner Reply


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