With momentum building for biometrics, it may not be long before consumers are using their fingerprints, irises, or voices to prove who they are to bank Web sites and automated teller machines.
Visa International and the Financial Services Technology Consortium are expected to announce Friday that they will participate in a six-month test of fingerprint scanning, facial scanning, and electronic signature verification.
The New York-based International Biometric Group will conduct the tests from July through yearend.
Biometric identification has already gotten a boost this month from Microsoft Corp.'s announcement that it will incorporate biometrics into future versions of its Windows operating system.
Microsoft's move "has heightened already strong interest in biometrics," said Samir Nanavati, a partner at International Biometric Group. It has given his clients "a sense of comfort," he said.
Cheaper technology and improved accuracy are leading banks to take more interest in biometrics, said Adam Backenroth, a Chase Manhattan Bank vice president. Mr. Backenroth also is president of Financial Services Technology Consortium, a not-for-profit organization that sponsors research.
Widespread adoption of biometrics is hindered by a lack of standards, Mr. Backenroth said. With its 90 members, the consortium "could help set the standards for the industry," he said.
Some banks have been conducting their own experiments with biometrics. The most popular of such tests are for employee log-ons at the desktop, Mr. Nanavati said.
Chase is running a pilot on a computer log-on that uses fingerprint scanners instead of passwords. Previously the bank had let some customers identify themselves through voice recognition technology at a few branches.
Though biometric identification technology has been available for a while, banks have been slow to adopt it, for a variety of reasons. One issue is the expense; another is possible consumer objections on the basis of privacy. Moreover, there has never been unanimous agreement on which body part to use for identification: contenders include eyes, voice, fingerprints, and even hands.
Last December, Bank United Corp. in Houston became the first U.S. banking company to pilot iris-identification ATMs. The test involves 75 machines in Kroger supermarkets. The system being tested takes a picture of the iris, digitally encodes it, and compares it with data already on file.
Fourteen other banks in eight countries also are testing this iris-recognition technology from Sensar Inc. for customer authentication.
This spring Toronto-based ING Direct, a phone and Internet bank owned by ING Group of the Netherlands, sent about 500 customers fingerprint readers, which make log-in passwords unnecessary. The readers were built into computer mice that ING bought from Secugen Corp. of San Jose, Calif.
Microsoft's addition of biometrics to Windows is meant to let consumers conduct secure electronic commerce transactions using their fingerprint, iris, or voice instead of a password. The Redmond, Wash., company licensed the technology from I/O Software Inc.
I/O is working with about a dozen financial institutions on pilots that involve a couple of hundred people, said William Saifo, president and chief executive officer of the Riverside, Calif., company.
"Mostly they are using biometrics to give employees access to secure Web sites," Mr. Saifo said. "Biometrics are definitely getting to maturity stage."
Mr. Nanavati said all financial institutions, from large banks to community banks and credit unions, should be looking at biometrics for security reasons. "If they're not, they're behind the curve."