Since they’ve soared in popularity, selfies have been a source of empowerment and mockery, but now they’re serving a much more functional purpose: secure online payments. At the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, MasterCard introduced the idea of selfies as one of a few biometric checks, which also include fingerprints and heartbeats. While the technology is certainly impressive and much simpler than other security measures, experts wonder how secure it is. Will this technological breakthrough mean easier payments or a fast track to identity theft?
Convenience of biometrics
MasterCard first unveiled the “Identity Check” system in October. Since then, the technology has been trialed in the U.S. and the Netherlands and is set for launch in the U.K. MasterCard now sees how this approach as a more convenient alternative, hoping the technology is on its way to replacing passwords entirely.
The company conducted a survey and found that 53 percent of shoppers forget passwords at least once a week, spending 10 minutes or more resetting accounts or leading one third of customers to abandon purchases altogether.
While Identity Check is set to make this process simpler, MasterCard originally introduced the technology in an effort to boost security.
“I think the whole biometric space is a great way of protecting yourself when you are doing payments,” Ann Cairns, the head of international markets for MasterCard, told CNBC. “There are a whole range of biometrics that say ‘I’m me, I’m making a payment’ and it just makes the whole thing more secure.”
However, as biometrics become more of a reality, many question how secure they actually are as payment methods. Woodrow Hartzog, an associate professor of law at Samford University, told WIRED that biometrics tend to be more secure because they’re difficult to fake or replicate. However, in the case that someone is able to do so, the information is forever compromised. There’s no way you could change your fingerprint or heartbeat like you could a password.
Data breaches are one of the biggest threats to biometrics. As the last few years have taught us, big name companies can be hacked, so consumers rightfully worry that linking their unique identifiers to a database can pose a huge security risk.
For these reasons, Alvaro Bedoya, Professor of Law at Georgetown University, told WIRED he questions whether or not these security measures are actually as safe as they claim. Passwords, he argued, are inherently safe because they’re meant to be a secret, whereas a detail like your face or ear shape can easily become public knowledge. A thief could take a high resolution photograph and use it to compromise your data.
The future of biometrics
These security concerns aren’t holding biometrics back, though. In fact, the technology continues to race forward. Since Apple introduced the fingerprint scanner on the iPhone, the demand for this technology has only accelerated, and it goes far beyond personal security.
The Department of Homeland Security has partnered with U.S. Customs and Border Control to introduce iris and facial recognition services, adding millions of scans to the FBI database. Local police departments have also invested in biometric technology, like Los Angeles.
While companies like MasterCard keep innovating the technology, the public remains skeptical about how the convenience of biometrics outweighs the security risks. Eventually, though, these alternative payment methods could become an important part of protecting your identity. For now, the best approach is vigilance.
As part of your vigilence consider investing in a service like Identity Guard that can monitor your credit file and Social Security Number to alert you to certain activity that could indicate fraud.