Biometrics vs. Passwords: A Fight No-One Can Win

Thanks to Apple Pay, then Samsung Pay, biometrics companies have seen a tremendous surge in consumer interest, to the point where they are now falling over themselves trying to be seen as the authentication standard that replaces the password.

No doubt the alleged Starbucks breach, which was reported to be the result of weak password authentication, will have these same companies in a feeding-frenzy of finger-pointing and I-told-you-sos. This is more than a little inappropriate, as biometrics not only has some of the same weaknesses, it adds layers of complexity and risk far above those to which passwords are exposed: at least you can change a password.

If you take 1800s transportation as an analogy, the answer was not to breed faster and stronger horses. You repurposed what you had (including the horses), coordinated a huge array of other industries and innovations, and worked TOGETHER to build something exponentially better.

Authentication now finds itself at a crossroads, and like most things in the Digital Age, there is no one right answer. The only certainty is that it will be the mobile devices that will be at the center of taking payments and authentication innovations to the mainstream. If you can’t put your authentication mechanism on a smartphone it simply won’t be adopted.

One answer which is simple, and brings the benefit of using both passwords (in the form of customer PIN) AND biometrics (in all its forms) is now available. No single factor of authentication is enough, and each one has its strengths and weaknesses. By combining multiple factors, you not only negate the limitations of each, you ensure that security is significantly more robust. The whole, in this case, is much greater than the sum of the parts.

The longer the password is, and the more of them you have, the more difficult it becomes to keep track. But the simpler the password, the easier it is to crack. Biometrics is relatively more convenient, but is prone to false positives, and once known from a physical perspective, can never be changed. So each factor is not ideal by itself, but combining a simple password, like a PIN, with biometrics, device registration and geo-location, presents a much more resilient hurdle.

We believe that poor design can lead to overly complicated solutions, and authentication mechanisms are no exception. Making a payment should actually be simple, as it’s just a transfer of value from one place to another, it’s the fact that we have MADE them complicated that makes them unsecure.

The average consumer is used to entering a PIN or a password and their smartphones should now be able to take care of the rest in a way that they hardly even notice it happening. Only in this way can we achieve the security we need, with the convenience required to make implementation practical.

For the payments sector to build the next generation of consumer solutions, individual vendors need to stop focusing on themselves and be more collaborative.