Giving ATMs the finger – NCR exec shows how

In Chile and Colombia, biometrics is giving ATM banking the finger.

At that’s a phenomenon we may witness in Canada too…if Mark Grossi has his way.

Chief technology officer at NCR Corp., Grossi is also a leading evangelist for “self-service banking at the touch of a fingerprint.”

It’s a technology he and his team have honed and perfected at NCR’s Advanced Concepts Lab in Dundee, Scotland.

On Tuesday, Grossi demoed the technology in Toronto at the annual RBC Applied Innovation Symposium. The two-day event offers tech vendors an opportunity to showcase innovative applications relating to the financial and banking services sector.

A specialist in introducing emerging technologies into the commercial marketplace, Grossi focused on the “chief benefits” of fingerprint biometrics: simplicity, security, and swiftness.

The technology’s simplicity, he said, is based on its moving the authentication away from what you have and know (your bank card and PIN), to what you are (your fingerprint). “It also simplifies things for the bank, which doesn’t have to distribute banking cards, and worry about managing a huge card base.”

Security is the other big benefit, the NCR executive said, but acknowledged that the level of security depends a lot on the fingerprint sensing technique used.

Popular methods include: optical, ultrasonic and RF.

And while optical is used in quite a few applications – for instance, by American embassies and consulates overseas when they electronically fingerprint US visa applicants – RF is Grossi’s preferred method for self-service banking.

“An RF reading is subcutaneous,” he said. “So a damaged or dirty finger – which may cause errors with optical – would not be a problem with RF, because RF scans through six to seven layers of skin.”

Where it’s hot and where it’s not

The biggest uptake for fingerprint biometrics, said Grossi, is in emerging markets such as South America, India and China – geographies where there isn’t a huge legacy of card-based transactions.

Grossi related how fingerprint scanning is being rolled out by Bancafe Bank – one of Colombia’s leading financial institutions – across its entire network of 486 ATMs.

But how are customers responding? Aye, there’s the rub.

For while an NCR release says some 50 per cent of Bancafe’s customers have signed on for this new technology, Grossi acknowledges the uptake is not consistent across all segments. He said the new technology is a big draw among Colombian coffee growers in rural districts who don’t have bank cards. When the growers come to town to sell their beans, payment is electronically transferred into their account and they can access their money in small amounts by scanning their finger into an ATM.

However, the city folk who do have bank cards have not been over eager to make the transition. And, according to Grossi, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “What they’ve done, quite cleverly, in South America is to allow either card-based or biometrics-based [transactions] – and give customers the choice.”

He said in Chili, adoption of biometrics for banking was even easier as fingerprinting is an accepted practice in that country [“the Chilean government collects everyone’s fingerprints from the time they’re eight years old”], and a government fingerprints database was already in place.

So how does it work? According to Grossi, bank customers use their social security number at the ATM. They simply put their finger on the fingerprint reader and voila – the transaction begins. “There’s no PIN number, there’s no ATM card – just the social security number and the fingerprint.”

O Canada – cultural constraints

If it’s taken off in Chili and Colombia – Canada cannot be far behind, right? Well not quite.

It may be a few years before the concept of fingerprint biometrics for self-service banking catches on in Canada. And according to Grossi, delayed adoption here has nothing to with cost, or even concerns about security. It’s a cultural thing.

“In a society such as Canada – or even the U.K. – where there is much more emphasis on individual privacy this technology may not be accepted completely by consumers right now.”

But the NCR CTO predicted greater acceptance as people realized the value of trading some privacy for increased security. “Given what’s happened in the past five years, people are much more willing to make that trade off.”

Grossi says adoption of EMV cards in Canada (expected to happen in the next three years) will trigger an interest in biometrics, as the two technologies could be used in complementary ways. “You can use the [EMV] chip card as the storage medium for your biometric template.” As far as security goes, far from it being a concern, he said, it’s actually one of the strongest features of this technology. “The fingerprint template is in the ATM core, and the USB connection between the core and the sensor is encrypted, so no external third party can acquire that template.”

He said even in the highly improbable event that the template were accessed by an outsider, it just provides the “highlights” of the print (joins, ridges and troughs), and one cannot reconstitute the fingerprint from the template. “So essentially you’re moving from a four-digit PIN to a tool with a security level of 10 to the power of 12.”

With that level of security, he said, banks would be able to offer their customers a broader and better range of services on the ATM. For instance, he said, restrictions on the amount of money and types of transactions a customer could carry out through an ATM could be removed.

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