Samsung's new smartphone rolled out this week, the Galaxy S9, has a prominent selling point: a better camera that can produce clear pictures in low-light conditions.

The improved camera could jump-start the use of facial recognition by banks because it solves that technology's biggest hangup—that facial recognition works poorly in low-light conditions.

So far, only a few financial institutions have embraced facial recognition. USAA lets members sign in using a selfie (though it requires members to blink to ensure it's not a photo being used to dupe the system) and other means of authentication to serve as a cross-check. Last March, USAA said 2 million of its members were using its biometric authentication system to log in via fingerprint scan or facial or voice recognition.

In November, Chase announced support for Face ID on the Apple iPhone X. Bank of America has said it’s testing facial recognition alongside other forms of biometrics in its labs.

But most banks have been waiting on the sidelines for the technology to get better. It's possible Samsung's latest phone could coax more of them onto the field.

Apple, Samsung moving the needle

Apple and Samsung are locked in a smartphone rivalry, with Samsung apparently winning. At the end of 2017, it had 21.9% of the worldwide market (with about 310 million units shipped during the year) and Apple 15.2% (about 215 million units, according to TrendForce). This matters to banks, which focus on supporting the largest players.

“Banks will be looking for the types of devices that have the widest adoption so that a higher percentage of their customers can be served by incorporating those types of biometrics,” said Shirley Inscoe, senior analyst at Aite Group.

As the two manufacturers strive to win hearts and minds, biometric authentication is a point of competition.

“Authentication that’s delivered in a convenient and secure manner is super important to the customer,” said Tom Grissen, CEO of Daon, the authentication tech provider behind biometric authentication programs at USAA and other banks that haven’t yet gone public with it. (Other providers of facial recognition technology include FaceTec and Onfido.)

Samsung is leader in global market share among smartphone manufacturers

“Apple and Samsung have reinforced that message,” he said. “When Apple launched its flagship product X, the feature they highlighted more than anything was Face ID. Both have better cameras, and every time you get another step forward in tech, a better gathering of features that enable more accurate facial recognition, combined with improvements in algorithms, that will lead to more accurate results.”

The largest financial institutions in the U.S. and Canada are carefully watching the handset manufacturers, according to Inscoe.

“Facial recognition is coming to market and getting better, and I think we’ll start to see other types of biometrics come to be used, perhaps voice or other things, as those technologies are accurate enough to really be viable as a way to authenticate yourself,” she said.

Facial is not the only biometric, of course. Many banks let customers use their fingerprints to log in, and some use voice in some circumstances, including USAA and Wells Fargo. Wells Fargo also offers eye vein-based authentication to its corporate cash management customers.

Inscoe said she has asked all the largest banks if they’ve had any cases of fraud as a result of fingerprint login, and they have all said no.

Facial recognition has an edge over fingerprints, Inscoe said, because several people could register fingerprints on a smartphone.

“If somebody signs into mobile banking, is it the customer, or their son, daughter, spouse or housekeeper or whoever else might have access?” Inscoe said. “For large-dollar transactions, facial can be a wonderful stepped-up authentication measure to ensure the person using that device really is the customer authorized to use it.”

Waiting for accuracy

What holds banks back from using selfie authentication is concerns about accuracy. Daon declined to share any data on this, and USAA did not respond by deadline.

A high rate of false positives or negatives will not cut it in a business environment, Inscoe noted.

The Galaxy S9’s 12-megapixel camera has a mechanically adjustable aperture that can adapt to very bright or dim environments. It also includes better focusing and noise reduction features than earlier phones.

Kevin Bowyer, computer science professor at the University of Notre Dame, says the Samsung Galaxy S9 could improve facial recognition accuracy by enabling better quality images in what might otherwise be low light conditions.

“In general, the pace of improvement in camera resolution, image quality, and added features seems rather fast in the smartphone arena,” he said. “I feel that nearly all smartphone companies are already pushing to offer a high-quality face recognition capability.”

With low-light issues remediated, are there still hurdles to adoption for facial recognition?

“I think that liveness detection is still an important element in moving face recognition into higher-security applications,” Bowyer said. “This is something that USAA approached in their challenge-and-response type interface, and something that Apple approached in their 3D face technology. In general, making it harder for fraudsters to spoof face recognition is still a very active area, for face recognition as well as other biometrics.”

In the end, banks may be pushed to support selfie authentication and payments by a younger generation that likes the method.

“As the world progresses and younger consumers grow in number, I think you’ll see financial institutions embracing [facial recognition] and reaching out to provide the services the way they want to use them because otherwise, they’ll risk losing them to other fintechs,” Inscoe said.

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