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Visa, MasterCard test biometric card security

Kelly Dilworth

Forget dipping your chip, entering a PIN or swiping your has-been magnetic stripe. A growing number of card companies are experimenting with a more secure (and, in some eyes, more personally invasive) payment verification method: the biometrically scanned fingerprint.

Visa announced earlier this week it’s testing a biometrics-based verification system for chip-enabled EMV cards that allows customers to verify their identity by scanning a unique body part, such as a finger, palm, face or iris or by speaking into a mic.

“There is increasing demand for biometrics as a more convenient and secure alternative to signatures or PINs, especially as biometrics technologies have become more reliable and available,” said Visa’s Mark Nelsen in the Sept. 15 news release.

The pilot project will take place in South Africa, where chip-and-PIN cards are the norm. Cardholders who visit ATMs will be able to scan their fingerprints instead of entering PINs in order to complete their transactions.

In an interview with the wire service news24, Visa spokeswoman Kate Kelly said the new technology will not only help make people’s bank information more secure, it will also help make transactions easier for people who can’t remember their PIN.

The technology is just barely in beta phase, so it could be a while before it becomes more widespread, but Visa plans eventually to bring it to the U.S., says Kelly. “At the moment, it’s really just a pilot phase to test the technology before they have any scale,” said Kelly in the news24 interview. “South Africa is the pilot and then (they) will look at rolling it out in the U.S. and other areas once the South African pilot is done.”

According to Visa’s Sept. 15 announcement, Visa’s technology is the first of its kind to combine biometrics with EMV. But it’s far from the first card company to experiment with biometrics.

MasterCard is also invested heavily in biometrics technology and announced last month that it was spearheading a small pilot project in California that will test the use of facial recognition software and fingerprint biometrics to authenticate payments.

“We’re excited to be on the cutting edge of exploring biometrics and engaged in the first U.S. pilot,” said MasterCard’s Catherine Murchie in an Aug. 18 news release. “A recent MasterCard survey found that 83 percent of consumers are excited about new secure technologies helping to protect their financial information. In the same survey, three-fourths (75 percent) of consumers stated that they have heard of biometric payments.”

MasterCard also announced in August that it and TD Bank had helped create a first-of-its-kind payment-enabled wristband called the Nymi band that verifies users’ identities via the unique patterns of their heartbeats.

Not everyone, however, is cheering the increasing adoption of biometrics. Biometrics has come under heavy fire from privacy advocates who fear that people’s biometric information could be hacked and wind up in the wrong hands — particularly if there aren’t strict security measures put in place by every party involved in handling biometric data.

“The biggest concern is how are those biometrics being stored and what protections are in place to prevent them from being stolen or from systems being hacked,” said the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Jennifer Lynch in an interview with Voice of America.

“With a credit card number or a Social Security number or a driver’s license number, that number can be changed … But with a biometric, you cannot change your fingerprint. You can’t change your face. So if that data is stolen, then society is at a much greater for identity theft.”

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