Mastercard’s long-discussed ‘biometric checkout program’ has now entered a pilot phase, allowing customers to “pay with a quick smile or a wave of their hand”.

A new era begins.

Photo: CNBC
Scan your face to check out.

Mastercard has rolled out a controversial program that will allow shoppers to pay at the register with a mere smile or wave of the hand, as it tries to secure a slice of the $18 billion biometrics market.

The company’s “smile to pay” system, recently announced, is supposed to ‘save time’ for customers at checkouts. It is currently being trialled in Brazil, with future pilots planned for the rest of the world.

According to reports, customers will have to install an app which will take their picture and payment information. This information will be saved and stored on the third-party provider’s servers.

The company has already partnered with Fujitsu and other groups on the initiative.

Executives argue ‘touch-less’ technology will help speed up transaction times, shorten lines in shops, heighten security and improve hygiene in businesses.

“Once enrolled, there is no need to slow down the checkout queue searching through their pockets or bag,” Mastercard said.

“Consumers can simply check the bill and smile into a camera or wave their hand over a reader to pay.”

At the checkout, the customer’s face will be matched with the stored data. And once their identity is verified, funds will be deducted automatically.

Similar authentication technologies are used on smartphones (face ID) and in many airports around the world, including “smartgates” in Australia. The biometric dystopia has engulfed Australia.

This continued shift raises concerns relating to customer privacy, data storage, crime risk and bias.

Mastercard is among the first to launch such a system in Western markets – competing with the “pay with your palm” used at cashier-less Amazon Go and Whole Foods brick and mortars in the United States.

Shopping giant Woolworths has also trialled cashless stores in hopes of moving to similar systems.

Facial recognition technology has long raised eyebrows among civil rights groups, and much about the precise functioning of Mastercard’s system isn’t clear.

How accurate will the facial recognition be? Who will have access to the databases of biometric data?

Existing biometric systems are largely also used by police and other departments on many occasions.

In some countries, even banks have become comfortable relying on it to log users into their accounts.

Do customers know what they are consenting to?

Mastercard teams will decide how they use the data, for how long, where they store it, and who can access it. They will also choose what providers are “good enough” to be accepted as ‘partners’.

The current best facial authentication algorithms still have error rates, according to tests by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Most are not laboratory quality in real-life settings.

If the technology misidentifies a person (for instance, John is recognised as Peter – or twins are confused for each other), could money be taken from the wrong person’s account?

How will fraud begin to increase with switches over to biometric payment systems?

We often hear about software and databases being hacked, even in cases of supposedly very “secure” organisations. Despite Mastercard’s promise to ‘ensure security’, there’s no guarantee the third-party providers’ databases – with potentially millions of people’s biometric data – won’t be hacked.

In the wrong hands, this data could lead to identity theft, which is one of the fastest growing types of crime.

Despite this, Mastercard suggests 74% of customers are in favour of using such technology, referencing a stat from its own study – also used by business partner Idemia (a company that sells biometric products).

Other studies show entirely different results.

For example, this study suggests 69% of customers aren’t comfortable with face recognition tech being used in retail settings. And this one shows only 16% trust such tech.

Who is telling the truth here?

Either way, Australians can soon expect the program to hit our shores after successful pilots overseas.

Watch this space.

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