Cash machine cards may become a thing of the past following the launch of new hi-tech ATMs which let users withdraw money simply by pressing their finger on an infra-red reader that identifies them from the unique pattern of veins in their hand.
Poland has become the first country in Europe to introduce a network of “finger vein ID” cash machines, with 2,000 of the new ATMs opening in bank branches and supermarkets across the country this year, backed by a marketing campaign that promises “cash within your finger”.
A person’s finger effectively becomes the “chip” on a conventional bank card, as the infra-red device reads the unique vein pattern just below the skin surface of a finger or the back of a hand. But although the technology has become commonplace in Japan, where it was first developed, banks in Britain say it could be years before they appear on UK high streets.
Some Japanese banks also use the technology as a security measure which allows – or prevents – customers from accessing safety deposit boxes in branches. Its proponents claim it is more accurate than fingerprinting devices, and as reliable as iris-reading technology.
Hitachi Europe, which is behind the Polish ATMs, stressed that it is not about reading fingerprints. “Near-infra-red light is transmitted through the finger and partially absorbed by haemoglobin in the veins to capture a unique finger vein pattern profile, which is then matched with a pre-registered profile to verify individual identity,” it says.
The experts say that vein recognition is a more secure technology than fingerprint scanning, with the readers incorporating a “liveness” detection feature to ensure that a real hand is presented. That might also assuage macabre concerns that thieves would hack off a person’s finger to ransack cash from their bank account. The infra-red readers are cheaper than iris scans, but there are concerns that with the technology at a relatively early stage of development, no one knows what will happen to veins as people age.
According to Hitachi, whose European headquarters are in Maidehead, Berkshire, vein patterns are established in the womb and are remarkably stable throughout the rest of a person’s life. Spokesman Pete Jones said: “They are a physiological feature that is established in the mother’s womb. As the person grows, they remain the same. Even if someone becomes very overweight, all that happens is that the pattern scales up. We have been researching this technology for 15 years and found it to be very stable.”
Vein-reading technology is already in use outside of financial services. In the US, nuclear power and biohazard plants have installed vein readers, while it has been reported that some casinos have installed the readers to protect their cash rooms. Airlines are also considering using them as a new type of boarding pass. Some devices combine a fingerprint scan with a check on the person’s veins.
Will British holidaymakers hoping to take out cash abroad find themselves blocked? The ATM makers say they will continue to have traditional chip-and-pin readers where customers can access their cash in the traditional way.
A spokeswoman for Lloyds Bank, which has the biggest number of current account holders in the UK, said: “We have no plans to adopt this technology at the moment.” Link, which runs the biggest network of ATMs in the UK, said: “The use of biometrics as authentication for ATM transactions is a very interesting development, and one we’re keeping a close eye on in the UK. ATMs are always evolving and although this is not a technology currently under development for the UK, there’s nothing to say we won’t see it in future.”
One reason why biometric ID devices have taken off faster in emerging markets (Turkey and Russia have also introduced vein-reading ATMs) than in the developed world is that their launch presents numerous legal and ethical challenges over the storing and use of biometric data.