Will facial recognition payments replace your bank card?

COVID-19 has speeded the adoption of many digital technologies that have been around for many years. Contactless payments have been one of the biggest hits over the last twelve months as consumers began to question the need to handle germ-ridden bank notes and coins or touching ATMs.

The ability to tap our traditional bank card, smartphone, or even smartwatch to pay for goods quickly seemed like a more sensible option when in the grips of a global pandemic. However, it appears that this level of convenience is not quite enough as nations increasingly adopt facial recognition payments.

By replacing plastic debit cards with a smartphone, we are still tethered to a device. What if you could leave your home without any devices, wallets, or purses and seamlessly pay for everything using your facial id? PopID has made it possible for shoppers to walk into a store, grab a few items and pay with their smile by glancing at a camera attached to the cashier's counter.

By removing devices, cards, and fingerprints from the payment process, consumers can enjoy a genuinely contactless payment in a socially distanced world. Regulators and privacy advocates will quickly warn that the real price of this level of convenience will be your privacy. But is this a trade that people will be willing to make?

Global adoption of facial recognition payments 

Facial payment technology has been around for a few years. More than 100 million people registered in China to use a similar solution by tech giant Alipay who made it possible to use face payments in over 1,000 convenience stores. In Spain, CaixaBank is rolling out facial recognition ATMs, and in Israel, a Holon-based start-up is attempting to make the entire shopping process as simple as taking a selfie.

Banks have also launched facial biometrics for retail payments in Nigeria and mobile services in South Africa. The global adoption of biometric payments could quickly usher in a cashless society, but at what cost? Sure, it can feel quite primitive handing over paper notes and a pile of silver coins in exchange for goods in a digital world. However, the anonymity that physical cash can offer is just one example that highlights the expense of sacrificing your privacy.

The big selling point of facial recognition payments is you can leave your wallets and smartphones at home. But I suspect leaving their phone at home for the day would be many people's idea of hell.

After all, if you don't record, check-in, and document your day, it didn't happen, right?

Another problem with going completely cashless is your monthly spending at Starbucks could come under the spotlight in a future mortgage application. In some countries, it could provide a government more powers to track movement, spending, and their identities. Before we get too concerned, facial recognition has an Achilles heel. We are all currently wearing masks in public spaces.

Face Masks and Face ID

Apple Pay has proved to be a big hit with iPhone users by reducing friction and creating a seamless way to pay for items without reaching for a wallet or purse. But the arrival of a global pandemic and mandatory wearing of face masks has created a textbook definition of a first-world problem. 

Even the most uber-cool Apple fanboy can be seen desperately trying to unlock their iPhone using Face ID when wearing a mask before giving up and frantically entering their security pin instead. By removing Touch ID from iPhone 12 and Face ID being rendered useless, iPhone users quickly turned to Twitter to share their frustration and amusing stories.

NaNa tweet screenshot

Thankfully, Apple has introduced a workaround to ensure facial recognition will recognize its owners again, but users must have an Apple Watch for it to work. With the feature no longer fit for purpose, there are rumours that Apple will resurrect Touch ID in the iPhone 13. But in a world where face masks appear to be a part of our lives for the foreseeable future, facial recognition is not going to replace the plastic card just yet.

The future of facial recognition payments

The stage is set, and global adoption is already gathering pace. The concept of going to a local convenience store to pick up unhealthy snacks, alcohol, and packs of cigarettes after a bad day without fear of judgment could quickly disappear. One of the big problems of an entirely cashless world is that every transaction will leave a data trail that will reveal more about us than we would probably like to admit.

On the surface, we have been sold an almost cool dystopia where we can pay for meals and our subway ride home by merely using our face.

Industries such as automotive, healthcare, and banking are also adopting the technology to transform traditional payments. The big question remains: are consumers willing to trade their privacy for convenience?

If you thought your smartphone and favourite social media platforms invaded your privacy, you haven't seen anything yet. The problem is that your digital footprint just got much bigger. In the wrong hands, it could enable governments and big tech companies to identify you anywhere and everywhere you go, along with your spending habits. Is the convenience of facial recognition payments for privacy a trade you are willing to make?

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