Can Visa finally split up biometrics and passwords?

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Biometric technologies are finally advancing, as mobile apps turn to features such as Apple's Touch ID to identify users and protect account data. But there's still a problem: Fingerprint readers and voice recognition don't always work, leaving passwords as a common fallback.

The "password bypass" is not an insurmountable problem, but it remains a prominent design feature for several reasons, according to Mark Nelsen, senior vice president of risk and authentication products at Visa.

A fingerprint scanner may not work if the user has wet fingers, the lighting may not be correct for facial recognition and voice detection may not work on a train platform. In these cases, an alternative method is needed to access accounts — but that alternative doesn't need to be a password.

"We need to start using multiple types of biometrics so I don't have to have a password as a backup," Nelsen said.

In collaboration with BioConnect, a biometric identity platform builder, Visa has developed a proof of concept of a system that lets users switch among multiple forms of biometric authentication. For example, a user with damp fingers will have the option to use his or her phone's microphone to authenticate by voice, avoiding the phone's keypad entirely.

Visa hopes to spend the next year refining the technology to meet several challenges. The card network handles transactions for millions of cardholders and executes transactions in milliseconds, requiring the "alternative biometric" technology to be broadly available, easy to deploy, and fast.

"What we're doing now is hardening up the system so it can scale to the size that we need," Nelsen said. "We're going to spend 2017 making this commercially viable."

There are some battles that biometric systems are already winning, according to Nelsen. When Apple introduced Touch ID people started using it and recognized how convenient it is, Nelsen said, adding the the convenience factor is trumping the fear factor for biometrics.

"Apple is a great example of how this can help … The keys to getting biometrics to a point where we can do away with passwords altogether will be ubiquity, habituation and education," said Julie Conroy, research director at Aite Group.

Other companies are also working to bridge gaps in biometric authentication. Samsung, for example, is collaborating with banks to share authentication, with Samsung managing the technology while banks manage the data used to identify users. And the bank-run P-to-P network Zelle is deploying behavioral biometrics.

By partnering with BioConnect, Visa appears ready to compete with Google and Apple over authentication, said Tim Sloane, vice president of payments innovation and the director of the emerging technologies advisory service at Mercator.

Google and Apple are well positioned in biometrics, Sloane said, because they can consolidate multiple apps and browsers behind the APIs they implement in the operating system, which increases the availability of biometric authentication options.

"Consumers will come to expect that approach will be used every place including when I pay, call the bank, enter the branch or access online banking," Sloane said.

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