Biometrics and the future of contactless payments

Biometrics and the future of contactless payments

The rise of contactless

It has been nearly 10 years since Barclaycard introduced contactless payments in the UK, and already it's hard to imagine the world without them. The reason the technology has thrived over the past decade is because it has remained a secure and universally-trusted way of confirming identity, and thereby authorising financial transactions. As we look ahead to the next decade, biometrics are stepping up as the new means of authorising payments quickly, reliably and safely.

So what makes you special?

Token-based identification, like credit cards, driving licences and passports may be safer than ever, but are on their way to being replaced by biometrics. Biometric identifiers are characteristics that are unique to an individual or group, and they’re already big news. 

Of course, the idea of using physical characteristics to verify identity is hardly new. Fingerprints were first used to do so in India in the 1850s, and they’re still used today – for instance, visitors to the USA still require a fingerprint scan on arrival. So in a world where plastic cards are becoming obsolete, how will we verify our payments in future? 

Ask most people what they know about biometrics, and they’ll tell you about fingerprint or iris scanners. Yet this is just scratching the surface of what is already possible. Fingerprint scanners are now available widely; many smartphones feature the technology as standard. This popularity has inevitably led to hacks, with industry commentators highlighting how access to many popular smartphones can be “spoofed” relatively easily using common materials such as wax or clay.

Identity is all in the blood

The answer to this open security concern could be a more secure version of biometrics: vein sensing. Surprisingly, the blood vessels in your fingertips are actually more unique than even your fingerprints, and scanning them is just as quick – yet far more secure. In 2014, Barclays and Hitachi revealed that they had already produced a vein scanner and were offering it to corporate clients internationally. The inventors stated that the technology would take one million attempts before the device fails or misidentifies a scan. 

Secure payments are a heartbeat away

This idea of using markers within the body is taken to the next stage with cardiac rhythms: the idea that sensors can use the unique signature of your beating heart to identify you. More secure than eye-scanning or facial recognition, this technology is used as a biometric ‘key’ by comparing your sensed heart rhythm to a saved record. Canadian company Nymi already markets a wristband-worn heartbeat authenticator. The device can determine exactly who is wearing it by detecting the bearer’s unique heartbeat. It can then share that confirmed identity to any device with Bluetooth and NFC capabilities.

A brainwave in security ideas

But why stop at the cardiogram? Brainwave identification has been tested and found to have up to 94% accuracy according to a study quoted in New Scientist. This technique asks users to read a simple list of words while taking an electroencephalogram (EEG) and compares their brain’s activity to a previously recorded readout. Because reading a list like this is so specific, it fires up a single EEG pattern that’s easy to isolate, improving accuracy. There is still development to be done, however; it is not yet accurate enough to use for security, and can’t be relied upon once the subject has drunk alcohol, caffeine or had a workout, which tend to alter your natural brain activity.

Whatever the future holds, it is likely to be as frictionless as possible; either remotely sensing who we are, listening and watching our actions, or working as a wearable option. Contactless payments have shown the way – to a seamless and secure future.