Innovations We’re Thankful For: Biometrics

As we gear up for PYMNTS.com’s Innovation Project 2014, our annual showcase of the best new ideas and brightest minds in the payments space, we’re launching a special Innovations We’re Thankful For Series, a three-part special that aims to highlight the disruptive forces our experts believe are shaping the industry for the better heading into 2014.

In each installment, we’ll focus on a new technology, its use cases and the reasons why we believe it’s something we should be celebrating. Happy holidays!


By Jeffrey Green (@epaymentsguy)

I was glad, perhaps even thankful, when Apple in September included biometric access in its new iPhone 5S. To me, and likely to many others, it represented the beginning of the end to having to remember so many usernames and passwords.

I counted. I have more than 100 different websites and mobile applications that, theoretically, should have different usernames and passwords attached to them. I have a confession: They don’t. Like most people, I practice poor authentication practices. We need help, and biometrics may be the answer.

Apple’s Touch ID biometric service, however, has flaws, and it by no means offers the technology that eventually would win out as the market leader, at least not yet. But, once consumers get a taste of the simplicity fingerprint biometrics offers, it likely won’t be long before they get hooked and want more.

Room For Improvement

Despite that likely boost in demand, though, the technology needs vast improving to reduce false positives and negatives associated with authentication, and the market should not rush to bring less than top-grade technology to market. Apple likely knows this, too, and that’s why it is limiting access to its biometrics service to its own phone and app services.

Times were a bit different a decade ago, when another biometric service, Solidus Network’s Pay by Touch, began to roll out for point-of-sale payment authentication. Smartphones, and the apps that run on them, hadn’t yet been introduced, and the number of websites requiring authentication were not as plentiful.

As such, demand for a biometric alternative to usernames and passwords was not as strong as it is today. That likely contributed to Pay by Touch’s inability to gain much momentum, even though the service alleviated the need to take a card out of one’s wallet to pay, which is a physical-payment annoyance. Users, though, still had to remember a personal identification number (PIN), and they could only apply a bank account to the service processed through the automated clearinghouse system, not a credit or debit card.

Try, And Try Again

Today, another company, Nexus USA, is attempting to resurrect POS biometrics. It’s in its early stages, but the technology seems sound.  

It’s doubtful we’ll ever get away from two-factor authentication, and it’s for that reason I doubt passwords or PINs will go away any time soon. They represent something you know. Something you are, such as a fingerprint algorithm or a verified voice pattern, would serve as a strong secondary validator. With biometrics, you don’t really need the third factor, which is something you have .

It’s A Start

Biometrics may not get rid of passwords or PINs, but they likely will alleviate the need to remember so many usernames. That’s certainly a start, and something to be thankful for.

But, with all of the reports of fingerprint scanners getting spoofed with print replicas made of latex or even photocopies, I’ll be thankful, too, to keep a second form of authentication required as well.

For more on biometrics and its potential impact on mobile and online commerce, download PYMNTS.com’s latest 18-page report here

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