A View from Christopher Mims
Beyond Cell Phone Wallets, Biometrics Promise Truly Wallet-Free Future
The rollout of NFC payments in the U.S. has been so sluggish that a superior technology—biometrics—is about to catch up.
Ever since Google announced that its Android phones would be equipped with a “digital wallet” that allows users to pay for things simply by touching their phone to a pad, interest in our wallet-free future has taken off. Long in use in Asia and especially Japan, the enabling technology, Near Field Communication, has allowed users to more or less completely replace credit cards with phones—yet the technology has languished in the U.S.
That delay has dragged on so long that at least one competing, not to mention superior, technology has reached maturity. Manufactured by Fujitsu under the trade name PalmSecure, it’s a system that requires no hardware on the user side. If you’ve got hands and you can wave them in front of a detector, you can use it to make purchases.
PalmSecure is a kind of identification / security scheme that falls under the umbrella of biometrics. Other biometric identifiers include your fingerprint, voice, iris, face, even the shape of your earlobe. Unlike those other measures, PalmSecure is uniquely unobtrusive. It’s literally the same gesture required to use an NFC phone wallet or to swipe a credit card, only you don’t have to have anything on your person to make it work.
The technology is affordable enough that one Florida school district is already deploying it in its cafeterias to allow students to make purchases. It’s also being used to identify patients in New York University’s Langone Medical Center, where 250 scanners have been deployed at a total system cost of $200,000.
The technology is remarkably straightforward: near-infrared light shines up from a detector, allowing it to image the unique pattern of veins in a person’s hand. This pattern is stored as a unique identifier, not an image.
All that’s required to turn this system into a reliable payment mechanism is a service provider willing to link that unique identifier to a bank account or credit card. That’s not trivial, but if the rise of payment system pioneers like iPhone-based Square tells us anything, it’s that it’s at least possible.
Unlike phone wallets, which aren’t obviously superior to existing solutions like credit cards, a biometric-based payment system is not only more secure than existing cash alternatives, it actually has the potential to make the ones we already use more secure.
The unique pattern of veins in your hand can’t be stolen, for example, and neither can your credit card if you choose to leave it at home. A biometric marker could also be used as a second authentication factor for existing payment systems, virtually eliminating credit card fraud at physical stores.
If the slow rollout of NFC holds any lessons, it’s that breaking the monopoly of the existing payment system is difficult, especially when merchants bear the cost. But a biometric identification system could be a unique identifier that might justify its additional expense for some vendors. If you think waving your phone to pay for something is convenient enough to convince you to go to one coffee shop versus another, imagine how thrilled people will be to simply raise their hand?