NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Halifax, one of the U.K.'s most established financial services providers, is testing new biometric technology that will allow customers to prove their ID through the unique rhythms of their heartbeats. But will the new technology heighten banking security and render PIN obsolete?
Banking PINs and passwords are of course of extreme value to hackers and robbers, and in an age of rampant data breaches, hackers are increasingly utilizing methods to discover PINs used to unlock devices or accounts. Consequently, it is in the interest of many technology manufacturers, banks and other institutions to be able to offer consumers a much more secure and sophisticated alternative to PINs.
Enter the Nymi Band, a slender and discreet bracelet that measures a customer’s intricate “cardiac rhythms,” which, like our fingerprints, are unique to every individual. The pioneering technology is being developed by the Canadian firm Bionym.
Halifax is testing the new biometric technology. While the Royal Bank of Canada has already teamed up with Bionym to test out the Nymi Band, Halifax is the first bank in the U.K. to test wearable electronic bands that use customers’ heartbeats to verify their identity.
The Nymi Band
Instead of having customers enter any codes at an ATM or checkout counter, the bracelet works by pre-storing a wearer’s electrocardiogram (EKG) onto the device. The bracelet needs to be paired up with a banking app on the customer’s smartphone.
Using Bluetooth, the user’s heartbeat rhythm stored on the wristband becomes married to the phone. Whenever a customer wants to do banking, he has to place their finger on top of the band. A current then passes down to the wrist to check the wearer’s biological "signature." When the unique heartbeat identification is recognized with the one previously stored, the banking can be processed.
The BBC’s Simon Gompertz, who tried out the new system, said Halifax’s thinking behind testing the new technology is that it provides better security for its customers, even better than using your thumbprint. After all, a thumbprint could, potentially, be copied.
Nymi’s creators also claim that the new “cardiac signature” would be more secure than other forms of biometric identification, such as facial recognition technology and eye-scanning.
“In a world of passwords and pin numbers, the Nymi Band will allow you to wirelessly prove that you are you to the world around you,” said Bionym.
Halifax is currently using the "cardiac signature" to allow customers to log on to their account via their smartphone without having to type in any PIN numbers and passwords.
Marc Lien, director of technology for Halifax, is keen for the bank to experiment with new forms of technology for customers.
“Exploring innovative technology is a real focus for us at the bank," he said in a release. "We are in the very early stages of exploring potential uses for the Nymi Band and wearable technology more widely.”
Biometic ID Technology for Multiple Applications
Aside from being used as an ultra-secure identification method or banking, heartbeat ID technology could be used in other applications, according to experts, such as starting up car engines or letting workers into offices.
It is also estimated that governments could make use of the technology, at border controls, for example.
While in experimenting with technology that uses customers’ cardiac rhythms to heighten banking security Halifax is certainly stepping into bolder and more technologically advanced dominions, the British bank is by no means unique in grappling with wearable tech and customer interaction.
Numerous lenders in different countries are trialling wearable tech. For example, in Spain, La Caixa and Banco Sabadell have trialled apps for the Google Glass project, the highly anticipated wearable computer device.
While banks around the world are eager to keep abreast of technological developments and remain competitive in high street banking, does such technology really have a future?
Google Glass is a good example of how the marriage between augmented reality technology and banking can not work out so well.
In 2013 a handful of banks launched the first banking apps for Google Glass, the wearable computer with a webcam and an optical display facing the wearer’s eyeball.
Banco Sabadell’s Google Glass app enabled users to go online and carry out numerous banking operations via voice commands. Using GPS, the app also helped Banco Sabadell customers locate the nearest ATM machines.
The Discontinuing of Google Glass
Despite sounding great ‘on paper,’ Google Glass was beset with controversy, particularly when the Explorer program was launched and wearers were unable to record videos and take photos covertly.
In January 2015, Google confirmed it was stopping sales of its smart glasses. The device has also been banned in banks and other establishments including hospitals, cinemas, cars, bars and casinos.
While Google Glass could be perceived as a wearable tech failure, we cannot deny that it spawned a new phenomenon and kick-started a wearable technology revolution, breeding fodder for the likes of the Canadian firm Bionym to come up with the “cardiac signature” bracelet and Halifax to fervently test it out.
Are Biometrics Viable?
So what are the experts’ views on utilizing biometric banking to heighten security for consumers?
Robert Siciliano, a personal security and identity theft expert, believes that passwords are weak and that the internet’s weak link is the difficulty in identifying the correct individuals who should be using a particular account.
Discussing passwords and PINs, Siciliano talks about the need for a better security strategy and refers to advancing identification technology that scans consumers’ fingerprints, heartbeats or even brainwaves.
“Biometrics, it seems, is taking on a whole new meaning,” says Siciliano.
That said, the security expert does believe that much of this new biometric technology is not yet ready for mainstream use. Referring to “cognitive biometrics”, which use customers’ brainwaves when they are accessing their bank account, Siciliano says that while the technology has been proven to work, people need to wear a helmet attached to their scalp. That could be an impediment to widespread adoption.
What about the consumers, how do they feel about the race for banks to adopt hyper-advanced wearable tech?
22-year-old Rachel Brooks, a student in Manchester, U.K., says she would be game to wear the Nymi Band.
“Nobody can mimic your heartbeat, so I guess the Nymi Band would be great in stamping out fraud," she told MainStreet. "I’d wear one if I was asked to.”
Though not everyone is as impressed. As one Telegraph reader commented in response to Telegraph’s report on the Halifax trial of the cardiac signature technology:
“Why not just have a plastic tag stapled through each ear like the rest of the sheep and cattle.”
Love it or loathe it, innovative identification and banking technology that consumers can wear and no longer have to worry about remembering hordes of PINs and passwords, certainly looks on target to becoming an inherent part of future consumer banking.
—Written by Gabrielle Pickard Whitehead for MainStreet