Facial recognition technology at tipping point in payments

It was barely two years ago that the world’s first facial recognition payment system was developed, but now it seems this technology is set for lift-off globally. Finnish firm Uniqul launched biometric authentication technology in 2013, which used mathematical models of people’s faces to confirm users. Cameras mounted onto the front of an ATM or POS could even recognise consumers as they approached, producing what the developers claimed was the “world’s fastest payment system.”

Now it seems we’ve reached a key tipping point for facial recognition, as global card giant MasterCard throws its resources behind its own version that it’s calling ‘Selfie Pay’.

The company is trialling the system in the Netherlands and the US, after which it aims to roll out more widely. The first pilot sees 750 ABN Amro credit card users do away with their passwords, PINs and confirmation codes. In the US, First Tech Federal Credit Union cardholders will be able to verify identity via facial photographs or fingerprint scans conducted on smartphones.

“The new generation, which is into selfies … I think they’ll find it cool. They’ll embrace it,” the company’s security expert Ajay Bhalla told CNN.

More secure?

Selfie Pay is not only an alternative to a PIN-based physical transaction in store or at an ATM, but also for online payments. MasterCard is seeking ways to replace its SecureCode online password system that it said earlier this year would be phased out. As more fraud takes place in the card-not-present sphere, card issuers are under growing pressure to improve security and biometric technology is seen as central to these efforts.

The idea is to make online payments more secure with facial recognition technology, but other trials have not been positive. Google tried it on Android phones but had problems and said its facial recognition is “less secure than a pattern, PIN or password”. Criminals can spoof the system by holding an image of the real user to the screen. MasterCard will require users to blink once to confirm they are human, but even this can circumvented.

Earlier this year, Alibaba floated the idea of facial recognition payments. Dubbing it ‘Smile to Pay’, the system is being developed for use with the Alipay online payment service and Alipay Wallet. “Online payments are always a big headache. You forget your password…you worry about security,” CNBC reported Jack Ma as saying at the CeBit trade fair in Germany.


While it’s not the first system of its kind, MasterCard’s involvement marks a step-change for facial recognition. It has partnered with every smartphone maker, including Apple, and is working on agreements with major banks. MasterCard is also responsible for roughly one-third of all credit card transactions and a quarter of debit card payments globally, according to figures from the Nilson Report.

Like Apple Pay and NFC-based smartphone payments, MasterCard may be the key player to drive the technology into the mainstream.

Moreover, facial recognition, like other forms of biometric technology, has the potential to be universal and ubiquitous. Rather than having to remember multiple PINs and passwords, someone’s face can be used in all contexts, from the ATM or branch to replacing passports and driving licences.

The technology is available, but there is a genuine concern about security. If someone steals your facial ID, you cannot just change it like you would change a compromised password or PIN.

Written by Andy Brown

Andy Brown

Andy is marketing director for payments at NCR. He has nearly 30 years' experience in e-payment systems from the delivery and support of systems in the Far East and Europe, from both the product management and marketing perspectives. Based in the UK, Andy is responsible for marketing NCR payment solutions.

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