Inching Forward on the Biometric Trail

Given how familiar most of us are now with high-tech tools that would have been considered cutting-edge just a few years ago, it’s amazing how dependent we also are on the lowest of low-tech strategies: the password. For many consumers, these jumbled letters and numbers are both the first and last lines of defense in the digital universe—a sorry state of affairs indeed. And since passwords can be compromised by everything from personal vendettas to brute-force attacks, is there really no better way to cover our assets?

Of course there is, and we all know that way to be. . .biometrics. In essence, we use our unique characteristics—the fingerprint, the iris, and so on—to serve as the ultimate channel of authentication. There are even intriguing advances in this field: As covered here on recently, brain waves might soon be entering this arena.

No one contends that biometric technologies are a panacea. In fact, contributors to this blog have highlighted some of the problems as recently as November of last year. We certainly know that fingerprint records can be duplicated. Still, it’s hard to argue that they represent a major step forward—if not a foolproof measure, then at least one that’s leagues better than passwords that include birthdays and other easy-to-remember portmanteaus.

This is why, when organizations pursue innovations and initiatives in this field, they deserve attention. In that vein, there have been some moves lately that have the potential to catch on. (Of course, let’s acknowledge that that’s been said quite a few times before.)

London-based conglomerate HSBC is currently one of the world’s largest in terms of total assets. It has well over 6,000 offices in 80 countries and territories, and around 60 million customers. The corporation’s size alone makes its every move potentially influential across the industry. Meanwhile, HSBC subsidiary First Direct is a telephone and Internet-based retail bank with about 1.25 million customers.

Last month, the two entities jointly unveiled voice and touch identification technologies that could be widely adopted—potentially by up to 15 million customers—in just the next few months.  The change is simple yet radical: Consumers who opt to use the new tools can create a ‘voice print’ and bid farewell to every complex combination of alphabets and digits they’ve hitherto been forced to retain.

To be clear, this is by no means the first rollout of biometric tools for banking, even in the U.K. Fellow conglomerate Barclays has made available similar to its wealth management customers since 2013 (and is shooting for a broader rollout), while Royal Bank of Scotland and Natwest offer fingerprint technology to iPhone users.

Meanwhile, tech companies are doing their part to make these tools more accessible. Late last month, four vendors together announced what was billed as the first end-to-end security architecture for fingerprint authentication at Mobile World Congress 2016 in Barcelona. The promises are as bold as ever: The developers say the newest release replaces the most common username and password authentication for applications such as payment and digital access, along with two-factor ‘strong’ authentication for fingerprint recognition. The firms involved are Gemalto, Fingerprint Cards, Precise Biometrics and STMicroelectronics.

To be clear, it’s not as if there aren’t many options already. Anything faster/better/cheaper is always welcome, of course, but the basic technology for biometric security has been around for a while. In this case, it could be argues, the innovation is running quite a bit ahead of adoption.

What’s needed, perhaps, is for consumers to step up, perhaps with gentle prodding from their particular banking provider. As much as we hate remembering convoluted passwords, the idea of, say, looking into a camera that scans the iris and authenticates a person’s identity represents a massive break from the past. But it may be high time to make that break.


Written by Jack Dougal

Jack Dougal

Jack Dougal is's resident news reporter. He writes regular blogs covering the latest stories and key developments in the global financial services industry.

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