The Customer Effect

Inside Wells Fargo’s mission to create a password-less future

  • Biometric banking, while a mainstay in much of the developing world, is still in its early rollout phase in the U.S.
  • Concerns over technology and cultural adaptation are driving a cautious approach from major banks.
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Inside Wells Fargo’s mission to create a password-less future

In a few years, when you need to get some cash out of the ATM, an eye scan may have replaced the need to enter your passcode.

At least, that’s what Wells Fargo is hoping. The bank is in the process of testing out various technologies in the arena of biometrics — whether it’s voice, fingerprints or eye scans — that it hopes will eventually phase out passwords altogether.

“One biometric doesn’t fit every situation,” said Steve Ellis, head of Wells Fargo’s innovation group. “Our view is they can decide which they want to use in the moment they’re trying to. For example, if I’m driving in my car and I want to talk to the bank, I’m not going to authenticate with my fingerprint but maybe my voice could be the password … we see this idea of biometrics replacing user IDs and passwords.”

Accessing a bank account through a thumbprint, voice print or eye print has become second nature in many parts of the world. Aadhar Pay, India’s system to unlock banking services through a thumbprint, will launch on Friday, and Australia’s ANZ Bank just announced a pilot program to let customers use their voices to authorize transactions of AUD 1,000 ($750) or more.

Banks in the United States lag behind as they figure out what combination of sign-on methods will work.

Wells Fargo has made notable strides on biometrics. For example, when you have to reach a call center, you don’t have to enter a pin; instead, you can use voice verification to get authenticated. In a more commonplace scenario, you can also use your fingerprints to access the bank’s mobile app. And late last year, it announced that by the end of this quarter, it will allow commercial customers to use eyeprints to authenticate customers. The software recognizes a customer by matching a picture of a user’s eye with information it has on the micro features of their eye, including blood vessels and other details. Wells Fargo is working with software developer EyeVerify, a company that was once part of its accelerator program that has since been acquired by Ant Financial.

Others in the United States that implemented biometric features include Citibank, which recently launched the capability to log into its mobile app through fingerprint, voice, facial recognition, PIN and password. Others, including U.S. Bank and JPMorgan Chase, let customers log into the mobile app with a fingerprint.

Companies that work on biometrics say what’s keeping banks from moving further is a mixture of concerns about regulation around biometric data and more importantly, a sense of skepticism from senior executives.

“Facial recognition is awesome, but do you really see yourself scanning your face to use an ATM?” said George Avetisov, CEO of HYPR, a biometric security company that works with major American banks. “There are banking executives that aren’t convinced.”

User habits also influence how quickly banks can roll out the technology. In many emerging markets, the transition to biometrics was easier because mobile banking has been a mainstay for a longer time.

“A lot of those countries skipped the desktop phase and went to mobile,” he said. “That’s why they’re more innovative on the mobile.”

U.S. banks also lag on biometric ATMs as well, in part because of the lack of a single standard that works across banks. “There is a lack of standards with regards to biometrics [for ATMs], which further delays in investment in biometric technology for fear of choosing the ‘wrong solution’,” said Dominic Hirsch, managing director of consulting firm RBR.

Hirsch added that data sharing and storage would also complicate a biometric ATM rollout. These concerns apply to emerging markets, although some countries (including India) have national biometric databases that can be used.

What may be the biggest influence on bringing biometric banking to mainstream may be the move towards internet-connected devices, which will help build a culture of biometrics in daily life.

“What’s going to be the catalyst is the internet of things,” said Avetisov. “You’re not going to lock your door with a password — these will be fully biometric experiences.”

Tanaya Macheel contributed reporting.

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