Telia toys with facial recognition for ice cream payments

In the ever-lasting search for 5G usecases, Telia has teamed-up with Finnish bank OP to trial facial recognition payment solutions.

While facial recognition technologies are taking a bit of a reputational beating at the moment, there are promising usecases in the pipeline. The issue which is not being discussed here, though certainly warrants more attention in the public domain, is the ethical, responsible and transparent application of the technology.

However, this example, authenticating payments, would appear to be a very logical application of the technology.

Firstly, biometrics are becoming increasingly normalised in payments and financial services authentication through fingerprints or vocal recognition, this is just one step further. Secondly, it is theoretically more secure than current identification and authentication techniques. And finally, banks already have trusted relationships with the consumer, and are yet to be caught up with a privacy scandal.

“Facial payment is a good example of a service that benefits from the capacity increase and lower latency of 5G,” said Janne Koistinen, Head of Telia Finland’s 5G programme. “5G will also take the security of mobile connections to the next level, which is interesting for example for payment and other financial services.”

Using the biometric template uploaded through a camera prior to the purchase with the customers bank, a connected device is used by the merchant to authenticate the individual. The customer then authorises the purchase with a simple click once their face has been recognised.

However, 5G would appear to be key here, largely thanks to the advances in lower latency which can be experienced. Slow service could certainly hinder experience and the commercial benefits promised.

“Besides security, a smooth user experience is important for customers,” said Kristian Luoma, Head of OP Lab. “5G makes the service faster and is therefore the perfect partner for Pivo Face Payment. We believe that the trial with Telia opens a new window to the future.”

Although fingerprints and vocal patterns are theoretically unique to each person, there are environmental factors which might hinder authentication. For example, dirt or grease stop the fingerprint reader from worker, or background noise could impact performance for vocal readers.

Facial recognition is also cheaper. Most smartphones or tablets already have a camera, so no specialist equipment needs to be built into the devices. The camera does not need to be high-end, just functional, therefore the expense is mainly on the software side. It is also a lot more accessible, in that everyone has a face and rarely covers it up when in a store.

For the moment, this trial has been limited to an ice-cream van in Vallila, though it is easy to see the wider applications in numerous different settings.

The challenge which such initiatives might face is the increasingly negative perception of facial recognition. This reputation the technology is working up is largely down to the unethical or secretive application in surveillance. This is a much larger topic which needs to be discussed in the public domain, however this initiative does demonstrate the benefits of facial recognition.

WhatsApp making progress on WeChat emulation ambitions

Facebook has been promising some sort of payments solution for WhatsApp, and it seems to be making a bit of progress in Indonesia.

According to reports from Reuters, Facebook is in discussions with several potential partners to offer a mobile payment feature in the app in Indonesia. Although this is not Facebook’s first venture into mobile money, there is a stuttering initiative in India, the Indonesian experiment will focus on creating a digital wallet to tap into one of the worlds’ fastest growing eCommerce markets.

Earlier this year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg suggested to investors a wander towards mobile money was an ambition of the business, though this should actually surprise few. When you consider the success of Tencent-owned WeChat in diversifying the offering of the messaging app, Facebook is playing catch-up.

For those who haven’t used WeChat, what you can actually do is quite remarkable. The app was solely focused on messaging to start with, but now you can send images, make phone calls, peer-to-peer payments are included, as are in-store purchase via NFC and paying utility bills. Soon enough, cards could become redundant, such is the growing usage of mobile payments through digital wallets and WeChat.

If Facebook could capture a slice of this success, WhatsApp might start to begin paying off the $19 billion Facebook had to fork out during the acquisition.

The original purchase of WhatsApp was seemingly a means to capture a messaging application which was taking the world by storm. However, the data which WhatsApp would have offered the Facebook advertising machine would have been very beneficial. The team has found integrating the two platforms very difficult to date, though mobile money is certainly a way of creating additional revenues.

In Indonesia, the Facebook team is in discussions with several partners to tap into the eCommerce platform, though in India it is focusing on peer-to-peer payments in-app. There are several reasons for the differing approach, regulatory barriers being one, though experimenting with two ideas could offer two new features for a global rollout.

Interestingly enough, something which might get the White House twitchy is the alleged conversation with one of the potential partners; mobile payments firm DANA, which is backed by Ant Financial, an affiliate company of the Chinese Alibaba Group. Considering the current relationship between Washington and Beijing, these must be interesting conversations.

Globally, this is a very good move from Facebook. According to data from Sensor Tower, WhatsApp was the most downloaded application during the first quarter, with 223 million new installs, taking the total north of an estimated 1.5 billion users worldwide. This is a massive addressable audience, representing huge potential if the team can get all the moving parts to align.

Switzerland surprised to hear it will be regulating Facebook’s cryptocurrency

In a testimony before the US Senate Facebook indicated its Libra cryptocurrency will run from Switzerland, but it forgot to ask the Swiss if that was OK.

David Marcus, who is heading up Libra on Facebook’s behalf, testified before the US Senate Banking Committee in response to profound alarm from US lawmakers at the prospect of the social media giant developing its own currency. According to CNBC he said the data and privacy regulation of the currency will be overseen by a Swiss agency, as that’s where Libra will be based, but they say that’s the first they’ve heard of it.

In his testimony, which you can watch in full here if that’s your thing, Marcus said the Swiss Federal Data Protection and Information Commissioner (FDPIC) will keep an eye on the data protection side of things, which must have only offered partial reassurance to US senators worried their citizens were vulnerable to having their data exploited yet again.

Imagine their horror, then, when they read the CNBC report and learned that Facebook and its Libra pals haven’t even made contact with the FDPIC yet. This failing, later confirmed by Facebook itself, it just the latest slip-up in what has been a frankly shambolic launch. You’d think Facebook would have dotted every ‘i’ and crossed every ‘t’ before unveiling a grand plan to revolutionise the global banking system and its failure to even check in with one of the proposed regulators it just embarrassing.

As TechCrunch notes, the data privacy side of all this is arguably the greatest concern as there will apparently be little control over developers that use the platform. Given the negative consequences of a fairly minor misuse of Facebook user data by Cambridge Analytica it’s baffling to see Facebook be so cavalier about this. The likelihood of Libra ever being set free is, on balance, increasingly small.

US politicians alarmed by Facebook’s cryptocurrency masterplan

The announcement of a new currency led by Facebook has caught the attention of US law-makers and not in a good way.

The Chairwoman of the House Financial Services Committee, Maxine Waters, is alarmed by the prospect of a massive company with a patchy track record when it comes to data protection and censorship having control of a global currency. She published the following statement on the matter soon after the unveiling of Libra.

“Facebook has data on billions of people and has repeatedly shown a disregard for the protection and careful use of this data,” said Waters. “It has also exposed Americans to malicious and fake accounts from bad actors, including Russian intelligence and transnational traffickers. Facebook has also been fined large sums and remains under a FTC consent order for deceiving consumers and failing to keep consumer data private, and has also been sued by the government for violating fair housing laws on its advertising platform.

“With the announcement that it plans to create a cryptocurrency, Facebook is continuing its unchecked expansion and extending its reach into the lives of its users. The cryptocurrency market currently lacks a clear regulatory framework to provide strong protections for investors, consumers, and the economy. Regulators should see this as a wake-up call to get serious about the privacy and national security concerns, cybersecurity risks, and trading risks that are posed by cryptocurrencies.

“Given the company’s troubled past, I am requesting that Facebook agree to a moratorium on any movement forward on developing a cryptocurrency until Congress and regulators have the opportunity to examine these issues and take action. Facebook executives should also come before the Committee to provide testimony on these issues.”

Waters isn’t the only representative to express concern and at least one Senator has joined the party, as you can see in the tweet below. Regulators are going through a period of realising they were very slow to acknowledge the magnitude of social media and they should be keen to show they’ll be less complacent about money than they were information. It seems likely that Facebook will have to jump through a lot more hoops to launch this product than it has had to previously.

Facebook leads corporate cryptocurrency initiative Libra

Social media giant Facebook has announced the launch of Libra, a ‘stablecoin’ apparently designed to revolutionise the digital payments market.

Such ambition would be highly questionable if it weren’t for the fact that Facebook has managed to get loads of other blue-chip companies involved, including Visa, Mastercard, PayPal and Coinbase. This gives the project a sense of scale and legitimacy that it wouldn’t have if this was just another gimmick to help Facebook exploit its users once more.

“Libra’s mission is to create a simple global financial infrastructure that empowers billions of people around the world,” blogged Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. It’s powered by blockchain technology and the plan is to launch it in 2020. This is especially important for people who don’t have access to traditional banks or financial services. Right now, there are around a billion people who don’t have a bank account but do have a mobile phone.”

Blockchain is a pretty complicated business, so to get how this works we recommend you go to the Libra site, read the Libra white paper and watch the videos below. Libra is described as a ‘stablecoin’, which means its value is pegged to regular currencies and thus won’t fluctuate like Bitcoin famously does. There’s also talk of almost no fees, so it will be interesting to see what incentive all the members of the Libra consortium have to participate.

Facebook’s own interests will be represented by a subsidiary called Colibra, which will produce a digital wallet that will be available in Facebook’s messaging apps as well as its own standalone one. “From the beginning, Calibra will let you send Libra to almost anyone with a smartphone, as easily and instantly as you might send a text message and at low to no cost,” said the announcement. “And, in time, we hope to offer additional services for people and businesses.”

This seems like a very ambitious project, the motives for which are still somewhat unclear. The narrative is all about extending financial services to the unbanked, but you have to assume Facebook expects to monetise this service eventually. The prospect of a company that unilaterally excludes any users it disapproves of being in control of a global currency is chilling.

 

NYC public transport finally gets the mobile payments memo

Despite the US being the leading voice in the technology industry, adoption of some pretty well-established technologies has been lagging across the country.

That is about to change in New York before too long, as the public transport system gets a much-needed upgrade to include Near-field communication (NFC) payments. Last week, Google announced it had integrated its payments system into the New York public transport system, and now Apple is getting in on the movement.

The contactless payment revolution has been sweeping the globe in recent years, drastically changing the way we work, play and get around. In London, for example, you can almost hear the groans of waiting customers when the now “old fashioned” chip and PIN method of payment is used. But contactless payments are now much more wide-spread than a speedy round of beers down the pub.

Contactless payments were first introduced on London buses in December 2012, and later extended to Underground and National Rail services in September 2014. The Oyster Card system is quickly becoming a thing of the past, with Transport for London (TfL) now claiming more than 50% of journeys are completed using contactless payments. In fact, TfL believes it is saving between 9-14% on fare collection because of the introduction of contactless payments.

Of course, London is not the only city which is making use of the new technology. Globally, there are now more than 100 cities making use of contactless payments, including the likes of Sydney (introduced in 2018), Moscow (2017) and Madrid (2017).

What is worth noting is there are different types of systems. Madrid, for instance, requires you to buy a specific ticket as opposed to using your debit of credit card, while Sydney only upgraded to NFC mobile payments earlier this year. That said, progress is progress.

And the benefits are more than just operational efficiencies for the public transport systems. It is substantially quicker than traditional means, a very important factor when you consider how many people are moving out of the countryside and into the cities nowadays. According to the UN, 68% of the world population is projected to live in urban areas by 2050, up from c.55% today. There will be considerable strain placed on public transit systems before too long.

In New York, this is an upgrade which is long-overdue. Google is introducing its mobile payments systems to the Subway from May 31st, as will Apple. The tap-to-pay system will only be available on the 4/5/6 lines between Grand Central Station in Manhattan and Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center in Brooklyn to start with, as well as the buses in Staten Island. This is only the beginning however, as the plan is to rollout the system across the entire public transport network over the next few months.

Over time this system will begin to improve. Google has already said it will continue to work with The Metropolitan Transportation Authority to bring more features with Google Maps and Google Assistant, much like it does with many other cities around the world.

Welcome to the digital world New York!

Estonia is best digital home away from home, report says

Expats voted Estonia to the top of their digital life quality list in a new survey.

InterNations, a social network for expats, recently conducted a global survey to gauge the perception of digital lives enjoyed by those living in a foreign country. 68 countries were featured. Although most of the findings confirmed the conventional wisdom, the report also threw up a couple of surprises.

Overall, the Nordic countries ranked high, with Finland, Norway, and Denmark all in the top 5 best countries for digital life table. But topping the list is Estonia, which ranked exceptionally high on the e-government index, with 94% of all expats surveyed feeling satisfied with the availability of the country’s administrative services. Estonia also topped the table of unrestricted access to online services. The country, similar to other Baltic and Nordic countries, adopts a light-touch approach towards Internet. Following Estonia on the e-government satisfaction list is Singapore, with Norway coming second on the unrestricted access to online service table.

Unsurprisingly, South Korea, which leads the world in broadband access, also tops the league of high-speed internet at home, followed by Taiwan and Finland. Expats were also asked to rate their experience of cashless payment. The four Nordic countries took the top 4 positions, with Estonia rounding off the top 5. Finland was ranked in the first place, with 96% expats saying they are happy with the experience.

A question that is particularly relevant to expats is how easy it is to get a local mobile number. Here we see a bit surprise. Myanmar, which ranked at the bottom of the overall Digital Life table, came on top in this list, followed by New Zealand and Israel.

On the other end of the tables, China was only beaten by Myanmar to the bottom of the overall Digital Life table and sat comfortably at the bottom of “Unrestricted Access to Internet”, thanks to the all powerful Great Firewall. This is particularly pertinent for expats who would have a stronger need for the global social networks more than the local residents, to communicate with their home countries. 83% of all expats were unsatisfied with their access to social networks from China, followed in the second from bottom by Saudi Arabia, where 46% said they were unsatisfied.

The ranking may not be a big surprise, but the margin between the bottom two countries may be. The only table that China was not in the bottom 10 was the one on cashless payment. But, maybe surprisingly, with all the fanfare about the contactless payment experience enabled by companies like Alibaba and Tencent, expats living in China did not manage to take the country to the top 10 table either.

Best and worst countries for Digital Life

Europe approves new internet rules designed to rein in Amazon and co

As part of the overall Digital Single Market programme, the European Parliament has voted to approve new regulations claiming to protect European businesses and consumers when using online platforms to trade.

The “Regulation on platform-to-business trading practices” has been almost two years in the making since the publication of a document titled “Online Platforms and the Digital Single Market: Opportunities and Challenges for Europe” by the European Commission in May 2016.

The EU executives were understandably happy with the passing of the new rules. “We are delighted by the overwhelming support to the new rules on online platforms’ trading practices among the members of the European Parliament. As the first-ever regulation in the world that addresses the challenges of business relations within the online platform economy, it is an important milestone of the Digital Single Market and lays the ground for future developments. Not only will it improve trust, predictability and legal certainty, it will also offer new and accessible options for redress and resolution of disputes between businesses and platforms,” said the official statement, jointly signed off by Andrus Ansip, the Commission’s Vice-President for the Digital Single Market, Elżbieta Bieńkowska, Commissioner for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs, and Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society.

What drove the Commission to undertake such an initiative two years ago was the understanding that there is a lack of a redress mechanism when the European SMEs encounter problems when trading on the global platforms (companies singled out include Booking.com, Facebook, eBay, and Amazon), for example, “delisting without statement of reasons or sudden changes of Terms and Conditions”. The Commission has also assessed the effectiveness of legislative vs. non-legislative measures, but believed an EU-wide legislation is necessary.

The Regulation is aimed to achieve three main objectives as are outlined in the Impact Assessment Summary published a year ago:

  1. To ensure a fair, transparent and predictable treatment of business users by online platforms
  2. To provide business users with more effective options for redress when they face problems
  3. To create a predictable and innovation-friendly regulatory environment for online platforms within the EU

Although it has been approved by the European Parliament, the regulation still needs to be formally passed by the Council of the European Union, which represents the governments of the member states and can be roughly seen as another “chamber” of the union’s legislature. There is no definite timeline on when the Council will make the decision. However, by the reading of the press statement where the Commissioners thanked the member states “for their great efforts to reach a good compromise in a very short period of time. This is yet another positive development ahead of the upcoming European elections,” the Council may not be able to vote on it before the European Parliamentary election in May. After the final approval, the regulation will enter into force 12 months after it is published in the Official Journal.

This is the latest internet-related legislation the EU has made recently. On 15 April the Council passed the updated Copyright Directive “fit for the digital age”, which has proved controversial.  There are also legislation and regulation updates in member states. France has started levying 3% income tax on digital companies with sales in excess of €25 million in France and €750 million globally, without waiting for an EU-wide tax regime as part of the Digital Single Market. The UK, still an EU member state at the time of writing, has not only considered setting up a new regulator to oversee the digital world and started the consultation process of a “code of practice for online services” to protect children, but will also formally introduce the “porn block” on 15 July, which has been called “One of the Worst Ideas Ever” by some critics.