Facial recognition options growing despite early perception hurdles

Facial recognition technology in payments may soon become a reality in Europe, but questions have been raised over trust and security.

“[Speed of innovation] is going fast, which is why we are running these kinds of closed trials, because the solution we have could run. In principle it’s scalable to run in all kinds of shops, and we have a lot of interest,” says Jesper Kildegaard Poulsen, head of creation lab at Nordic payment provider Nets. Nets launched a facial recognition pilot programme for payments on December 9.

“But we have to go out and understand all aspects of it, and that’s the users, the privacy, the technology … Because we can take it far, but how fast should we really take it?”

The pilot will run in an office building cafeteria, servicing around 1,000 customers. Payments will be made by linking participants’ faces to their employee ID cards. Nets is the second European company to launch a payment solution trial using facial recognition; Finnish company Uniqul launched a similar solution in 2013, but has yet to see adoption outside of pilot schemes and a trial across cafes in Helsinki.

According to Poulsen, privacy issues have left facial recognition in payments slow to take off.

“You have your face identity, so this face key is the one that is stored centrally somewhere that we match to the keys that get generated from the picture taken from you at the moment of identification. That’s one thing – how do we make sure that [key] is stored as securely as possible, and that it is not only one way encrypted? If you somehow got your hand on that key, you could use it for nothing?”

Imitation is also an issue holding the technology back.

“Impersonation is a huge problem because once they’ve got enough of your ID data fields, then they can really pretend they’re you. And this is a problem that will only get worse because unlike a mobile number, or a device ID or something that you can still change, your own name, date of birth, voice, face – they are with you for the rest of your life,” says Andersen Cheng, chief executive officer of cybersecurity company Post-Quantum.

“So if there’s a fraud, you cannot prove that an account has not been opened with all the right credentials and attributes, because they are genuine … It’s virtually impossible to say it wasn’t you.”

Ruslan Pisarenko, chief executive officer of Uniqul, believes privacy concerns are the greatest hindrance to facial recognition payments.

“According to our experience, the core reason for face recognition to take off slowly in EU and US (it is certainly a blast in China) is the higher concerns about privacy among Europeans and Americans. This leads to less value of the service to the merchants. Nonetheless, we have felt a resurgence of interest to this area in the last year in Europe, so we expect this type of payments to be more available in the future,” said Pisarenko in an email.

China is often considered a frontrunner in biometrics. State-controlled Chinese company UnionPay has partnered with banks since 2017 to provide a FacePay system where users link their facial identity to their payment accounts. In April, Chinese publication Yicai Global reported that Alipay was planning to spend $448m on promoting its latest facial recognition payment tool across the country.

“In terms of facial recognition, the engines coming out of China are the best, because they have unrivalled access to all the data, both good data and dirty data for the training,” says Cheng.

However, public reception of facial recognition is uncertain in China. In October, Chinese state media outlet Global Times reported that the utilisation rate of Alipay’s face payment terminals is low. Alipay has not released any data on the usage.

But attention towards facial recognition technology is growing in the west. The UK’s first survey investigating public attitudes towards facial recognition technology was published in September by the Ada Lovelace Institute, revealing that 90 percent of Britons were aware of facial recognition technology on a whole. 46 percent had strong opinions on privacy and believed they should be able to opt out of consent to facial recognition technology.

“For the customers, the core benefit of face recognition payments is certainly security,” said Pisarenko.

“Facial recognition allows to identify a person every time a payment is made, and this brings significantly higher security level for transaction authorisation then contactless cards. Quite a large number of people, for example per statistics about use of biometrics for payment authentication, is indeed concerned about payment fraud, and is willing to use biometrics.”

According to Poulsen, participants in a previous biometric pilot involving finger vein payments were open to the method.

“What we saw was people were quite happy. The people that were on board used it all the time – it was the only way of paying for them.”

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