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Take On Payments, a blog sponsored by the Retail Payments Risk Forum of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, is intended to foster dialogue on emerging risks in retail payment systems and enhance collaborative efforts to improve risk detection and mitigation. We encourage your active participation in Take on Payments and look forward to collaborating with you.

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July 13, 2015


Biometrics and Privacy, or Locking Down the Super-Secret Control Room

Consumer privacy has been a topic of concern for many years now, and Take on Payments has contributed its share to the discussions. Rewinding to a post from November 2013, you'll see the focus then was on how robust data collection could affect a consumer's privacy. While biometrics technology—such as fingerprint, voice, and facial recognition for authenticating consumers—is still in a nascent stage, its emergence has begun to take more and more of the spotlight in these consumer privacy conversations. We have all seen the movie and television crime shows that depict one person's fingerprints being planted at the crime scene or severed fingers or lifelike masks being used to fool an access-control system into granting an imposter access to the super-secret control room.

Setting aside the Hollywood dramatics, there certainly are valid privacy concerns about the capture and use of someone's biometric features. The banking industry has a responsibility to educate consumers about how the technology works and how it will be used in providing an enhanced security environment for their financial transaction activities. Understanding how their personal information will be protected will help consumers be likelier to accept it.

As I outlined in a recent working paper, "Improving Customer Authentication," a financial institution should provide the following information about the biometric technology they are looking to employ for their various applications:

  • Template versus image. A system collecting the biometric data elements and processing it through a complex mathematical algorithm creates a mathematical score called a template. The use of a template-based system provides greater privacy than a process that captures an image of the biometric feature and overlays it to the original image captured at enrollment. Image-based systems provide the potential that the biometric elements could be reproduced and used in an unauthorized manner.
  • Open versus closed. In a closed system, the biometric template will not be used for any other purpose than what is stated and will not be shared with any other party without the consumer's prior permission. An open system is one that allows the template to be shared among other groups (including law enforcement) and provides less privacy.
  • User versus institutional ownership. Currently, systems that give the user control and ownership of the biometric data are rare. Without user ownership, it is important to have a complete disclosure and agreement as to how the data can be used and whether the user can request that the template and other information be removed.
  • Retention. Will a user's biometric data be retained indefinitely, or will it be deleted after a certain amount of time or upon a certain event, such as when the user closes the account? Providing this information may soften a consumer's concerns about the data being kept by the financial institution long after the consumer sees no purpose for it.
  • Device versus central database storage. Storing biometric data securely on a device such as a mobile phone provides greater privacy than cloud-based storage system. Of course, the user should use strong security, including setting strong passwords and making sure the phone locks after a period of inactivity.

The more the consumer understands the whys and hows of biometrics authentication technology, I believe the greater their willingness to adopt such technology. Do you agree?

Photo of David Lott By David Lott, a payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed

July 13, 2015 in biometrics , consumer protection , data security , privacy | Permalink

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