Of Germany, beer and biometrics

Oct. 12, 2012 | by Richard Buckle

I have just returned from Germany where I spent a week at an HP NonStop user group conference, GTUG. On the return trip I stopped by Munich. After all, it was Oktoberfest and even in the many years I spent working for Nixdorf Computers, I had never managed to participate in this "celebration."

I had a tough time getting to the city center, but once I made it, I was underwhelmed. Perhaps the passing of years hasn't been as kind to me as I had thought, as my tolerance levels seem to be nowhere near what they used to be.

The difficulty in getting there? An ATM had dispensed €50 notes. That was it. When I keyed in my request at the rail station kiosk, I couldn't use this denomination, as it was too large, and when I tried to use my credit card, I found the railway would only take credit cards with PINs, which I didn't have. And, given the graphics displayed along the foot of the ATM, I didn't have the right debit card.

I had this experience fresh in my mind when an associate, CTO Thomas Burg of German software vendor comForte21, sent me an email from Japan with a picture (right) of a biometric ATM. I have written about this type of ATM before, but of late there seem to be more discussions under way over the merits of deploying them and of the possibility that in time, cards and PINs may become legacy items, in much the same way as others are forecasting of cash will do.

"I am often in Japan on business," OmniPayments CEO, Yash Kapadia said in an email. "I have a number of very big clients and what happens in Japan is important to me and my company. I am not surprised to see the further deployment of ATMs with biometric capability — scanning on thumb prints as I understand it — Japanese consumers have a penchant for trying new things and so it's understandable that in this marketplace these types of ATMs are finding an acceptance.

"Today you will find that in Latin America such technology is being put to very good use to reach the unbanked community at a low cost. I am seeing how governments in some Latin American countries are using biometrics instead of cards to pay citizens in remote parts of the country," Yash told me.

There's been some interest in biometric ATMs in India, but from what I can gather from discussions with my colleagues in that country, this could be tougher to roll out in India — the large number of ATMs and huge population would require massive storage! They did note that the State Bank of India had been leading the way with 600 biometric ATMs in 2010 but this did not take off as expected.

But perhaps that's about to change in India, and perhaps what Yash observed in Latin America is about to be replicated. I recently came across a news item in the New York Daily News reporting that "India's prime minister gave the green light Friday for a radical overhaul of the country's $61 billion welfare system that would see the government make cash payments direct to the needy," the report began.

The article went on to explain how, "After several trials of cash transfers in different areas of India, Premier Manmohan Singh approved the idea of implementing the policy nationwide that would change the way hundreds of millions of poor access entitlement programs … committees will be tasked with turning a system already in use in countries such as Brazil and Mexico into a reality for India and its 3.25-trillion-rupee ($61 billion) annual welfare budget."

And then, tucked away towards the end of the article was the additional comment "The move towards cash transfers is linked to another ambitious government program aimed at giving every citizen a unique biometric identity number which has made steady progress since it started dispensing numbers in 2010. About 200 million Indians have so far received a Unique ID number and the organization in charge of implementation is aiming to cover 600 million in the next 18 months. Only those with a UID and a bank account will be able to receive direct cash transfers from the government for their entitlements, the official in the PM's office explained."

The more I see markets of this size begin to seriously consider embracing technology like this and using it to get cash into the hands of the unbanked, the more I appreciate how valuable investments in biometrics might prove to be.

PIN numbers aren't the answer and their oversight remains an expensive proposition for most institutions. On the other hand, vendors like Intel are now moving to validating the patterns on a person's palm rather than just relying on a thumb print when it comes to authenticating a mobile phone, tablet or laptop. They obviously have found a market worth investing in, so a transition away from PINs may be accelerating.

As Yash reminded me, "there is a considerable cost to establish and maintain the cards — one has to deliver these via courier to remote parts of the country. And of course, all these costs are eliminated with the switch to biometrics."

Today I carry a bevy of credit and debit cards as well as loyalty cards — and yet, step too far away from where I live and they quickly prove to be next to useless. If only such a technology had been present in a mature market like Germany, I might just have found that extra time to join the celebration, but with the interface I was given, I lost my thirst for a beer — and yes, you are hearing that from an Aussie!

Topics: Biometrics , Components , Security

Richard Buckle / Richard Buckle is the founder and CEO of Pyalla Technologies LLC. He has enjoyed a long association with the IT industry as a user, vendor, and more recently, as an industry commentator.
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