Forget Credit Cards, Now You Can Pay With Your Eyes

A new Japanese phone with an iris scanner may mark a new era of password-free mobile payments

(Fujitsu)
smithsonian.com

In a spy movie, the protagonist or the villain, sneaking in to a secure facility, might trick an eye scanner into letting him or her through a locked door. But over in Japan, the dystopian-sounding iris scan is now being used for more pedestrian purposes: to pay for a new pair of socks or the latest manga.  

A new phone, released this month by Japanese telecommunications giant NTT Docomo, comes with iris recognition technology. Fujitsu’s Arrows NX F-04G phone allows users to unlock websites and access stored information using only their eyes, scanned by the phone’s front-facing camera. This means users can store credit card information and then pay for online purchases simply by staring into the screen.  

At 55,728 Japanese yen (about $450), Arrows is the first commercially available phone to use this technology. Iris scanning is not new, but the technology has long been prohibitively expensive. The Arrows iris scanner meets standards set by the FIDO (Fast IDentity Online) Alliance, an industry consortium dedicated to developing technical specifications for password-less online authentication. FIDO offers a protocol companies can follow to make sure their technology can interact with others. Members include Google, PayPal, Mastercard and Visa. 

The Arrows phone is yet another example of the increasingly common practice of biometric identification—the use of physical traits and markers to identify a person—for consumer purposes. These traits and markers include fingerprints, vocal patterns, gait, distance between facial features, iris patterns and more. Biometrics are considered more secure methods of identification than passwords or photo IDs, since they’re difficult (though not impossible) to fake.

Biometrics have long been used in forensics, from fingerprints to voice analysis to the FBI’s new facial recognition service. More recently, they’ve been incorporated into products like cell phones, some of which can be unlocked with the owner’s voice, and fingerprint-activated door locks. Facebook and many photo sharing services, such as Picasa, use biometrics to automatically identify faces.

The latest frontier in biometrics seems to be mobile payments. Apple Pay, which works with Apple Watches and the iPhone 6, lets a user pay for store purchases by holding their phone near a sensor with a finger on the phone’s fingerprint reader.

Despite its growing ubiquity, many are suspicious of biometrics, especially when it means giving data to companies who want their money. Corporations already store immense amounts of customer data, from your children’s ages to your medical conditions to your favorite brand of condoms. Do we want to give companies the power to identify us immediately upon walking into a store? Some luxury stores already use facial recognition software to ID celebrity customers when they come in.

Earlier this year, Chinese e-commerce behemoth Alibaba announced it would eventually let users pay for purchases on their smartphones by scanning their faces. The technology, called “Smile to Pay,” is still under development.

If technology like the Arrows phone does make it to the United States, will convenience ultimately triumph over suspicion? Previous technologies meant to replace the old wallet and credit card have struggled. The much-vaunted Square Wallet app, which allowed customers to use stored credit card information and a stored picture ID to pay at a store by simply telling the cashier their name, crashed in 2014. Combine customers’ unease with payment apps and their discomfort with biometrics, and you have a potentially difficult sell.

But Brett McDowell, executive director of the FIDO Alliance, thinks Americans will warm to technology like Arrows’ after they’ve been educated about how it works.

“Once consumers understand that it is safe and they try it for the first time, they will likely fall in love with the technology because it is so simple and it makes their daily tasks easier to complete, and faster than ever before,” he says. 

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