Biometric Smart Cards Month: The Payment Cards Puzzle is Solved

Last week, Mobile ID World kicked off Biometric Smart Cards Month with an overview of the industry trends and technological developments that led to the emergence of this compelling new technology. This week, we’ll take a closer look at the specific technologies in play in the world of biometric payment cards in particular, which are going to be introduced to huge numbers of consumers over the coming year.

Sensors Get Flexible

Biometric Smart Cards Month: The Payment Cards Puzzle is Solved

As discussed in “Biometric Smart Cards Month: How We Got Here, and Where We’re Going“, biometric access control cards first emerged years ago. In the wake of the smartphone biometrics revolution, it wasn’t a huge stretch to conceive of bringing fingerprint sensors to access cards, as Zwipe did with its biometric access card back in 2014. Zwipe went on to distinguish itself as the first biometrics specialist to deliver a biometric payment card through a collaboration with Mastercard that same year, but it was IDEX that made headlines with its announcement of a breakthrough flexible sensor designed for NFC smart cards in 2017. This flexible sensor technology represented a significant technological development in the state of the art, demonstrating that sensors could be implemented into the same kinds of flexible plastic payment cards in mainstream use among consumers; and it was in that same year that IDEX revealed that its own technology was being used in a new biometric payment card from Mastercard.

The Secure Element

Biometric Smart Cards Month: The Payment Cards Puzzle is Solved

Other biometric fingerprint sensor specialists soon followed suit, as did Visa, which went forward with its own biometric payment card trials at the start of 2018. Before that, however, new collaborative partnerships started to form that were aimed at solving another technological hurdle: how users’ biometric data would be handled on these new card solutions. NXP Semiconductors was one prominent provider of an answer, offering up its own Secure Element technology for the storage of users’ biometric data on a given payment card. The company teamed up with fingerprint sensor specialist Fingerprint Cards in late 2017, and with fingerprint algorithm specialist Precise Biometrics the following spring.

Others, like NEXT Biometrics, looked to collaborative partnerships with smart card manufacturers to ensure that their fingerprint sensor tech could be connected to Secure Elements to securely process user data. And for its part, IDEX Biometrics teamed up with Secure Element specialist HED to develop a reference design for biometric smart cards in late 2018.

The DIY Preference

Biometric Smart Cards Month: The Payment Cards Puzzle is Solved

Authenticating user data on the card would provide a highly secure means of delivering biometric security to these new kinds of payment cards, since sensitive user data wouldn’t need to be transmitted to an external server during the authentication process. That allows for faster authentication, and eliminates the possibility of users’ biometrics getting hacked in a data breach. But what about registering users’ biometrics in the first place?

This is the last major technical hurdle faced by the many players in the emerging biometric payment cards market. By this point, consumers were used to being able to activate their payment cards after receiving them in the mail, with no need to visit a physical bank branch. So the pioneers of biometric payment cards needed to figure out a way to let consumers register their biometrics at home, too. IDEX was once again early to arrive at a solution, announcing a patent-pending at-home enrollment solution in late 2017. Mastercard gave this solution a full-throated endorsement in the spring of 2018, announcing that it would allow end users to activate their payment cards from the comfort of home. Later that same year, Zwipe announced its own white label solution for remote fingerprint registration, and earlier this year Fingerprint Cards launched a similar home enrollment kit that could be mailed to consumers. All of these solutions revolve around an initial biometric scanning process in which the end user’s fingerprint biometrics are paired with a given card, allowing for subsequent high-speed authentication at payment terminals.

This has all helped to pave the way for large-scale rollouts of biometric payment cards. The necessary technologies are now in place to let consumers receive their cards in the mail, register their fingerprints at home, and instantaneously authenticate during transactions without sending out their sensitive data to external servers – and all of this happening on the familiar, flexible form factor of a standard credit or debit card. With these pieces of the technological puzzle now in place, the stage is set for mass commercialization, and that’s exactly what biometrics specialists, card makers, and financial services providers are hoping to accomplish in the year to come.


Biometric Smart Cards Month is made possible by our sponsor IDEX Biometrics.