Future Trends: Why Our Sights are Locked on Biometrics


Back in 2002, the film Minority Report was released in theaters. Set in 2054, visionary filmmaker Steven Spielberg imagined a futuristic Washington D.C. rooted in predictive technologies, evolved interfaces and innovative biometrics. His goal was to create a “plausible future reality.”

To realize his vision, Spielberg gathered a group of 15 computer scientists, biomedical researchers, architects and futurists for a three-day think tank. The result was an 80-page “2054 bible” that detailed much of the technological wizardry that appeared in the film.

The film was praised both by audiences and the scientific and technological communities. The prescience of the innovations displayed on screen were considered benchmarks to reach by companies like Lexus, Microsoft and Nokia.

One of the most universally applied technologies in the film (and anticipated to replace PIN authentication in the not-so-distant-future) was biometrics. In Spielberg’s “2054 Washington D.C.,” biometrics are used for everything from subway fare iris scanners and personalized retail offers to facial recognition door locks and spider-like robots designed to scan entire buildings in search of biometric data.

While the seamless integration of the biometrics predicted in the film is still the stuff of science fiction, biometrics as a method of authentication and access control is no longer a vision into the future. In fact, it’s very much a now-state reality.

And the financial industry is leading the way.

Biometrics is nothing new to the financial industry. Thousands of years ago, the Babylonians used fingerprints as a signature mark on clay tablets to authenticate their business transactions. Whether conjured up for a science-fiction blockbuster or unearthed from Babylonia, the idea has never changed: use a person’s physical traits as a secure method of authentication.

Diebold itself has a long history with biometrics. Our innovation team began actively testing biometrics in the ‘80s, and in 1996 we collaborated on an ATM that incorporated fingerprint scanning. More recently, we’ve worked extensively with retail banks in Brazil on hand-vein authentication and other forms of secure biometric authentication solutions. Banks in Brazil face a couple of challenges: theft at the ATM is very high, and many consumers only use an ATM once a month to access their stipends, leading to forgotten PINs. Biometric authentication addresses both these challenges, and has already become widely accepted in the region.

Biometrics have more than a touch of security.

As well as being a more convenient authentication option and a faster login option, security through biometrics can almost eliminate data breaches from common threats such as card skimming. In recent field testing studies our team has collaborated on, consumers overwhelmingly rated biometrics as the most secure authentication method.

Yet despite these advantages, adoption has been slow. I believe the reasons behind this are three-fold:

1.)          User acceptance is key. That’s why the more seamless the enrollment and fulfilment process is, and the more convenient the user experience is, the better the adoption rates will be. Modern-day biometrics, like iris scanning and face/voice recognition, are very passive and do not require users to touch anything. That’s a better overall experience than something like a fingerprint, which requires a physical touch. And unlike a fingerprint, it’s impossible to leave even a trace imprint of an iris behind.

2.)          Traditional card-and-PIN authentication systems already have as close to 100% positive hit rate as possible. If the card reader reads a consumer’s card and they’ve entered the correct PIN, they will get access to their accounts. There really aren’t any false negatives (i.e. a consumer correctly enters their card and PIN but the machine still doesn’t think it’s them) or false positives (i.e. they entered the wrong PIN but the machine still grants them access). Until very recently, biometrics couldn’t come close to the hit rate of the traditional card/PIN based systems – but that is changing with modern biometric techniques.

3.)          Financial institutions have already invested in an infrastructure where they manage PINs using sophisticated encryption mechanisms. That infrastructure works. Adding a biometric device doesn’t eliminate the need to continue to support the legacy card/PIN systems. The result is another piece of information banks need to securely store and manage. Therefore, their incentive to introduce biometrics (especially given items 1 and 2 above) has been low.

Where biometrics has really taken off is in areas where it’s been mandated by the government. And in those areas it has been very popular. Recently, we’re seeing consumers become more familiar with biometrics thanks to smartphones with fingerprint scanners and gaming platforms that recognize players through facial recognition and/or voice recognition. This adds to the user acceptance.

The biometrics boom is coming.

With the acceptance and growing use of biometrics on smart devices, the adoption rate and understanding of biometric advances will continue to garner more and more consumer buy-in. While this will undoubtedly take time, so will bridging biometrics into the existing payments infrastructure and ecosystem of financial institutions.

There is a growing use case for biometrics – but financial institutions, systems vendors, processors and end users must collaborate to identify which biometrics provide the best security and convenience, and to integrate them into the transaction processing data flow.

Additionally, software will be a critical enabler as biometrics slowly move from an all-in-one module to a software algorithm model which utilizes existing on-board modules like cameras. Creating this model will also take some time to develop, refine and roll out.

Our team is involved in ongoing collaborations with partners including Carnegie Mellon and EyeLock to drive the field of biometrics forward for the industry. At last month’s payments conference, Money20/20, we unveiled Janus and Irving. Irving, a screen-less, cardless cash dispenser, garnered an enormous amount of attention, due primarily to the iris-scanning biometrics we implemented.

We chose to feature iris scanning because it’s one of the least intrusive and most convenient forms of biometric authentication, and also one of the most secure. Since the iris is visible externally, an iris scan is really nothing more than a high-resolution photograph of the colored portion of the eye.

The scan is performed by taking a digital photo using subtle infrared illumination around the eye (no more than would be emitted from a standard television remote control) to highlight the variances in the structure of the iris. A computer algorithm then converts those variances into a unique string of numbers to create a “template” of the iris which is encrypted and stored. The actual photograph of the iris is not retained; only the template is required for authentication.

Media outlets ranging from NBC News to Fortune, the Mirror and Digital Trends took an interest in the biometrics work we displayed at Money20/20.

Our modern-day work is, in some ways, quickly catching up to Spielberg’s vision of the future. Thirty-nine years from now, in the real 2054, there’s a good chance we’ll actually live in a world where biometrics are the norm, and many of the forms of theft and fraud we see today have been virtually eliminated due to the security and personalization inherent in this emerging technology.

Interested in finding out more about our Innovation Team? Check out our latest projects, and see who we’re collaborating with. 

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