Banks have persistently shied from using biometrics to identify customers, though this has not stopped vendors of the technology from stepping forward.
Biometric Associates Inc. of Baltimore has begun promoting a new card-based fingerprint identification system that it says could reduce credit card fraud, and it will soon begin to test the system with a U.S. bank.
In November, Biometric Associates licensed a patented system from Fingerprint Cards AB of Goteberg, Sweden, which has had some success marketing its technology to nonfinancial companies. Volvo Car Corp. and Ford Motor Co., for example, are using Fingerprint Cards' technology in developing a "safety concept car" with a remote control that identifies owners by their finger images.
Though physical-world credit card fraud is very low in the United States - online card fraud is perceived as the major problem - Biometric Associates says it sees a market for its cards. They require cardholders to place an index finger on the payment card at the point of sale. A green light on the card indicates a match to the owner.
Douglas Kozlay, president of Biometric Associates, said the advantage of his company's system is that an algorithm derived from the cardholder's finger properties - including its contours and electrical conductivity - is stored on the card itself, not on a remote database that could be vulnerable to hacking.
Once a cardholder has registered a fingerprint, the card will not work until the proper finger is placed on the card's sensor. A red light blinks if the wrong finger is used, either by the owner or someone else, and the transaction is blocked.
If a retailer does not have a fingerprint card reader, then the cashier can simply ask that the cardholder put a finger on the card to see whether it flashes green or red. "That's the low-tech approach," Mr. Kozlay said.
He said his company is in talks with several U.S. bank card issuers and will soon begin testing with a bank he would not name. Mr. Kozlay said his company is working to make the technology "inexpensive, robust, and accurate."
But many obstacles exist. One is expensive infrastructure. The system the company is proposing would ideally require each merchant to convert not only to smart card readers but also to ones that can read biometrics. And banks would have to convert their card stocks. Biometric cards are more expensive even than standard smart cards because the fingerprint sensor is in addition to the chip.
Another drawback is that the biometric card is slightly thicker than a regular credit card and is particularly thick on the end with the finger sensor.
Moreover, "the problem with biometrics is, you're going to get a tremendous amount of consumer resistance," said Ken Kerr, a senior analyst in Durham, N.C., for GartnerGroup Inc. "It has a very negative connotation - anyone who gets fingerprinted is getting arrested."
Mr. Kerr said biometrics vendors would probably have more luck targeting companies that would give their employees no choice about using biometric cards for physical access or computer authentication. In the payment card arena, "unless there is some compelling reason to do it," consumers "are going to object," he said.
Lennart Carlson, chief executive officer and founder of Fingerprint Cards, said his firm's products can store several finger templates. "If you want the card to be used by your wife, your son, you can register those fingers," he said.
Mr. Carlson said he sees the United States as a strong market for this technology because various federal agencies, such as the Department of Defense, are beginning to incorporate biometrics and computer chips in the cards they issue to employees.