Fiserv is aiming to improve the accuracy and cost-effectiveness of biometric authentication by shipping palm-biometric kits to its customers.

Fingerprint authentication is gaining adoption through consumer technology such as Apple Pay's Touch ID. But in retail technology, biometric deployments have been more hit-and-miss due to factors such as the cost of maintenance and the perception that the devices are unhygienic.

Fiserv addresses both of these concerns through its use of Fujitsu's palm-scanning hardware. Users hold their palms about two inches away from the screen for authentication, reducing the need for actually touch bare skin to the scanner (it does, however, include a place to rest the wrist and fingers to improve accuracy). And with less need for physical contact, there is less wear and tear on the equipment over time.

Biometric authentication is seeing a resurgence after several unsuccessful attempts to weave the technology into consumer interactions a decade ago. Notably, a company called Solidus Networks d/b/a Pay By Touch predicted in 2005 that its fingerprint-based retail payment system would make it "a household name" within a year. Working with NCR, Solidus planned to expand the use cases for its tech to situations such as employee time cards. In 2006, it bought a rival, BioPay LLC.

But by late 2007, Solidus had fallen behind on rent and salary payments, and wound up in bankruptcy court. In March 2008, Solidus sold off its paycheck authentication system and shut down its retail payment system.

Biometric technology has of course persisted in branch environments ever since, and many companies have continued to experiment with new ways to use it for authentication.

Fiserv's current approach is more limited than what Fujitsu designed the technology to do. Whereas Fujitsu is pushing palm authentication for any customer need, Fiserv is offering it only for employee-to-customer interactions; it would not be used with kiosks, for example.

Palm prints require a much larger area to scan than fingerprints do. The scanner's small LED examines a four-by-four-inch square area with about 5 million data points when scanning the user's palm, said Charles Yanak, director of product management for ID solutions at Fujitsu Frontech North America. It uses near-infrared light ("same thing that is used in TV remote controls," Yanak said) to map the veins and the deoxygenated blood running through those veins.

Although the scans examine about five million data points, only a tiny percentage of them are actually used, Yanak said (he would not say exactly how many). The total data fits into a three-kilobit file, which can be compressed even smaller, he said.

The Fujitsu device, called an Icecube, is about an inch on each side and has a retail cost of $300, Yanak said. Fiserv plans to sell them in bulk to customers, along with Fiserv software and a service package of training, installation and tech support for "anywhere from $20,000 for a really small installation to as much as six figures," said Santo Cannone senior vice president of product management for Credit Union and Open Solutions at Fiserv.

Fiserv is using the palm units to replace its existing authentication system that uses a physical card coupled with a PIN.

"The consumer won't have to bring in the card or remember the PIN," Cannone said. "Our initial deployment will be solely as a teller or branch employee assist device," meaning no customer-facing kiosks will be supported initially. "This is partly because, once I am verified, the software pops up a profile of you so (the branch employee) can begin to interact very quickly," Cannone said.

The September shipments will support the Windows operating system with a focus on Surface tablets, Cannone said, adding that he expects to support iPads next year. "We're not sure about Android yet. We're kind of ignoring it right now," he said.

As for whether Fiserv will eventually support direct customer authentication, Cannone said that he didn't know, but he added that he is much more interested in using the system to authenticate employees.

Subscribe Now

Authoritative analysis and perspective for every segment of the payments industry

14-Day Free Trial

Authoritative analysis and perspective for every segment of the industry