Biometrics and Shopping in the Twenty-First Century

Biometrics are measurements of human biology unique to each person—like your fingerprint, your finger vein pattern, your face, and your voice. Biometric authentication is a way of identifying individuals based on these unique physiological features. You’re probably already familiar with this technology if you use your fingerprint to access your smart phone or certain apps (e.g. banking apps).

You might be seeing more and more optional or required biometric authentication in the near future as companies, organizations, and even some governments strive to meet two equally weighted demands: better anti-fraud measures and an improved customer experience.

Authentication and security

All methods of confirming a customer or user’s identity are based on one (or more if it’s two-factor authentication) of three authentication factors:

  • Ownership: Something the person possesses, like a credit card.
  • Knowledge: Something the person knows, like a PIN, password, or answer to a security question.
  • Inherence: Something the person inherently is, like a fingerprint.

The four most common biometric authentication methods are:

  • Digital fingerprinting. A scanner digitally scans your fingerprint and creates a mapping of the print but doesn’t save the original image. Future fingerprint scans are matched against this digital map. This is currently the most used biometric authentication method for everything from using mobile devices to mobile payment platforms.
  • Voice recognition. Software compares your voice pattern to a pre-recorded sample. Advantages include the affordability of the technology; the perception by consumers that it’s less intrusive as scanning a fingerprint, face, or eye; and the fact that more devices have built-in microphones than fingerprint scanners. However, some users may not put as much trust in voice recognition authentication based on experiences with the imperfect voice recognition and understanding of home speaker systems or digital assistants.
  • Facial recognition. Like with fingerprints, a scanner maps dozens of points on your face to create a one-of-a-kind impression instead of saving a picture.
  • Iris scanning. Again, similar to face and fingerprint scanning and can be used with the cameras on most current smartphones.

Some form of biometric authentication—especially when paired with another factor—is the best tool to stop fraudsters. Except if they’re Ethan hunt. Or James Bond or Jason Bourne.

Customer experience

A quick scan of a fingerprint or a face certainly appeals to shoppers’ desire for speed, security, and not having to remember a password when checking out. At the moment, this convenience is primarily experienced when shopping online via a mobile device and digital wallet, but the technology could be fast moving into brick-and-mortar stores. For the moment, while the technology and process are new, most American customers are still a little skeptically when using a phone- or tablet-based wallet app at checkout.

Biometrically verified mobile commerce transactions…whew

As fingerprint recognition is becoming more commonplace and customers increasingly use their smartphones for shopping and banking services, many merchants are beginning to add biometrics for payment and money transfers. With this greater acceptance, other biometric technologies will quickly enter the market. One already being trailed by some credit card companies is an on-card fingerprint sensing system.

With this new, futuristic card, the cardholder touches a built-in fingerprint sensor while presenting the card to the payment terminal at a store. Once the biometric match is successfully confirmed, the payment is authorized without needing to enter a PIN. Of course, this still requires a physical card to be present for the transaction, but because the payment is contactless, there is no magnetic stripe, pin, signature, or credit card number for fraudsters to steal!

The future for both mobile and in-person purchase will include more biometric technology. And while some consumers still have reservations about identity security using this tech, the hope is that with widespread adoption and improved processes, biometrics will become the safe, non-intrusive tool merchants and customers both want.

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