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Banking on biometrics

If your brain occasionally goes blank when the ATM machine requests your PIN code, or worse, someone else has withdrawn cash from your account, help is just a fingertip away. Nick Perkins, Divisional Director of Identity Management at Bytes Systems Integration (Bytes SI) explains why biometric technologies make perfect sense in the banking industry.

“The top five banks in South Africa are all exploring biometric initiatives to prevent bank card fraud. The level of fraud is significant and fingerprint technology can easily help to reduce that,” he says. “There’s also a huge convenience factor for consumers. People walk around with all these different PINs to remember and the convenience of just putting your finger down and knowing that nobody else can use your card is much better. It’s one-touch convenience instead of having to enter a series of numbers.”

So far none of the banks have committed to a roll out date, Perkins says, but one bank has already lined up 1 000 biometric ATMs ready to install.

The fear, of course, is that somebody might manage to replicate your fingerprint by lifting a sample off your desk, or worse, by cutting off your finger in some Mafia-style mob job if you’re particularly wealthy. That’s the stuff of movies though, because the latest biometric technologies can verify that the finger being presented is the genuine article and, just as importantly, still alive.

Technology company HID Global Corporation, for whom Bytes SI holds the agency in Africa and the Middle East, is leading the way in the field with its patented Lumidigm multispectral imaging technology, says Perkins. “Lumidigm technology is particularly well geared to eliminate fraud. It looks for ‘liveness’ to make sure it is a live finger,” he says.

Clever thieves have been known to replicate fingerprints by putting silicon glue over a victim’s finger. When the silicon sets, it has a fingerprint on it that will fool more basic biometric fingerprint sensors. Most readers take a photograph of the print being presented and will match a silicon version against the version in the database, Perkins explains.

“The banks can’t allow any form of loopholes when providing access to a customer’s account, so Lumidigm is designed to pick up when a real finger isn’t being presented. There is a lot of really clever technology in there that also monitors the sensor to see if someone is trying to tamper with it, making it a secure endpoint device, similar to the encrypted PIN pads you see in ATMs today. This is the next wave of security technology and all of the top banks are currently reviewing their options in this respect.”

Card fraud is rife because criminals can enter jamming devices into ATMs that prevent the card from coming out, then eject it when the owner leaves the scene. Some criminals shoulder surf to watch their victim enter the PIN code, while others install a tiny camera on the device that can film the digits being entered. With fingerprint access, those crimes will be eliminated.

“The benefit of biometrics is twofold. It’s an authentication method that can’t be copied, and if someone takes your card they still can’t access your account anyway because they can’t replicate your fingerprint on these fingerprint sensors,” Perkins says.

The South African Centre for Information Security says biometric technology has great potential in a market like ours where card fraud is high, and the change to more secure banking is long overdue. “The vulnerability of passwords is not going to go away and new alternatives are needed to help people keep their money and accounts secure,” agrees Greg Sarrail, Vice President for Solutions Business Development at Lumidigm.

Perkins expects to see growing demand for biometric security systems as corporations and governments across the continent step up their efforts to fight crime and corruption. Likely applications for the technology will see it used to verify people’s identities at banks, international border posts, to prevent ticket fraud at entertainment venues and to create reliable records for electronic transactions.

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