Can biometrics make banking more secure?

VILLAINS, beware. The fight against online fraud has a new weapon—the panic finger. Banks in Europe and South Africa are testing a device that authenticates online transactions by asking customers to run their fingerprint over a reader. If the print matches a stored copy, the device, which is made by Siemens, a German firm, and AXSionics, a Swiss firm, shows a PIN code that can then confirm the transaction.
Consumers can enrol more than one finger when they start using the scanner. That adds yet another layer of security: worrywarts can set the device to require a concerto’s worth of fingerprints before it gives out the PIN code.
It also allows people to designate a panic finger, for use if fraudsters are forcing customers to use the device. Swipe the said digit across the scanner and the transaction will appear to go through as normal even as the bank is alerted that something fishy is going on. For the truly neurotic, there is yet more reassurance. Criminals who are tempted to hack off customers’ fingers will be disappointed: the scanner has to detect circulating blood to work.

But two big hurdles remain—convenience and cost. Training customers to use something new is never easy. Scanning fingerprints adds time as well as security. And the device is another thing to lose or break. Systems based on voice biometrics look more user-friendly: people already use telephones, and can do so on the move. Voice signatures can also make transactions swifter, by cutting out the need to enter account details.
The economics are an even bigger barrier. The costs of the technology are coming down, but the device is still more expensive than other systems. Creating passwords costs virtually nothing and smart-card readers for use at home are much cheaper too [click heading for more]