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Biometrics joins battle for online payment security

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Identity theft is costing South Africa as much as R1-billion per year and has increased by more than 200% in the past six years. It is clear that consumers need an easy to manage security solution, but is biometrics the way forward?

Growing cyber risk has ushered in the need for watertight methods of protecting personal data. According to the South African Fraud Prevention Service, identity theft is costing the country at least R1 billion per year and has increased by more than 200% in the last six years.

Demanding and tech-savvy users continue to exert extreme pressure on companies to solve the convenience versus security conundrum. This is where a seamless customer experience and data security intersects.

In today’s mobile world it is increasingly important to have secure, on-the-go authentication. As a result, many experts feel that biometrics offers the best hope.

A new research report by analyst group BIS, forecasts the global biometric market to grow from $10.08 billion in 2014 to $25.31 billion in 2020.

This steep growth projection is helping to fuel innovation that is evident in how biometrics modalities continue to spread across the human body. It started with fingerprints in the late 1960s and progressed to facial recognition. Today the list includes vein, palm, iris, voice, gait, DNA, handwritten signatures and tattoos.

The new wave of biometrics technology is gesture related and personalised through a combination of wearable technology and geo-location as well as sci-fi inspired implants and ingestible tokens. Facial emotion recognition technology is patent-pending and is pipelined for consumer use. Though these have appeared in films for many years, they are largely unproven in the real world.

A bad rap

Despite its association to the tourism industry’s recent reduction in visitor numbers, biometrics in South Africa is enjoying real-world resurgence.

Speaking at the Biometrics in Financial Services conference, Nick Perkins, divisional director for identity management at Bytes Systems Integration believes the reason is that we have arrived at a time where we need a new solution.  “The existing card and pin authentication model has not been replaced because it is simple. The problem is that it’s no longer secure and is being exploited,” says Perkins.

Essentially biometrics is the measurement of a human being through their physical characteristics. Physical biometrics is turned into electronic biometrics when an algorithm converts an image of a biometric subject into a mathematical string that can be best described as coordinates and descriptions of unique identifiable features.

These algorithms then compare a “fresh capture” to the “reference template” which is warehoused in a database. The storage of templates instead of images helps to secure biometric data.

The many biometrics modalities on offer may hold the key to its wider adoption. South African biometrics experts agree that today it is not good enough for banks and other companies to rely on one form of authentication.

PayU COO, Johan Dekker, believes a solution lies in multi-factor authentication.

“The dual-factor authentication model strives to have two of three verifications in place at all times. A pin code is what you know, a smartcard is what you have and a biometric characteristic is what you are. A one size fits all approach would not provide enough adaptability, security and redundancy in the event of an access breach,” says Dekker.

Much work to be done still

Authentication is not the only aspect of biometrics that requires smoothing out. Biometric data can be stolen, lost or otherwise compromised while being stored. Unauthorized access to biometric storage devices through corporate sabotage by disgruntled employees is a growing threat to privacy. So too, is the misuse of a biometric, given that the biometric itself cannot be changed. Once compromised it will continue to be an issue for the life of the donor, as opposed to a password which can be easily changed.

Independent identity verification expert, Dawid Jacobs, highlights a key focus area and potential driver of biometrics today.

Says Jacobs, “The emphasis is on customer experience and how quickly they can be helped. This creates allowance for potential problems which escalate over time, specially with acceptable losses. In my view there is no such thing as acceptable losses due to identity theft. The individual needs to be put back in control of their Identity.”

The rush to ensure users are happy and safe is keeping leading tech companies busy.

MasterCard is currently piloting its new biometrics app, MasterCard Identity Check, which is set for a widespread launch in 2016. The app combines facial or fingerprint recognition as well as the recent human obsession, selfies. It remains to be seen whether Mastercard have solved the problems associated with lighting and background. All fingerprint scans remain on your device and facial scans are linked to the cloud so that templates will transmit and remain safe on MasterCard’s servers.

Apple has applied to use a facial recognition system for photo distribution. This calls into question the company’s pro-privacy stance should it decide to use cloud-based processing or storage of private user info. Apple was also recently granted a US patent that covers a new technology that enables users to unlock future iPhones by…wait for it…taking a selfie.

Closer to home, Standard Bank has debuted its biometric banking app. Capitec has fingerprint details of all 6.2 million of its customers and has linked its biometric database to the Department of Home Affairs’ database, enabling it to verify customer identity. The rollout of Biometric ATMs by FNB is imminent.

Dawid Jacobs is building an independent database of certified living and deceased fingerprint identities. He aims to provide SA companies with full audit trails and to be fully compliant with POPI, ISO and all relevant legislation.

Jacobs says, “The more companies know about their customers and the more they collaborate the less pressure is on state law enforcement agencies who do not have the tech or the capacity.” This will complement the FICA endorsed Know Your Customer initiative which also endeavours to prevent identity theft and money laundering.

Mustapha Zaouini, PayU’s MEA CEO sums up the reality for all users. “The issue of protecting individual data will only grow in importance. In order to reap the convenience benefits users must prepare themselves for more disciplined and multiple information security practices in this brave new world.”

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Smart home arrives in SA

The smart home is no longer a distant vision confined to advanced economies, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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The smart home is a wonderful vision for controlling every aspect of one’s living environment via remote control, apps and sensors. But, because it is both complex and expensive, there has been little appetite for it in South Africa.

The two main routes for smart home installation are both fraught with peril – financial and technical.

The first is to call on a specialist installation company. Surprisingly, there are many in South Africa. Google “smart home” +”South Africa”, and thousands of results appear. The problem is that, because the industry is so new, few have built up solid track records and reputations. Costs vary wildly, few standards exist, and the cost of after-sales service will turn out to be more important than the upfront price.

The second route is to assemble the components of a smart home, and attempt self-installation. For the non-technical, this is often a non-starter. Not only does one need a fairly good knowledge of Wi-Fi configuration, but also a broad understanding of the Internet of Things (IoT) – the ability for devices to sense their environment, connect to each other, and share information.

The good news, though, is that it is getting easier and more cost effective all the time.

My first efforts in this direction started a few years ago with finding smart plugs on Amazon.com. These are power adaptors that turn regular sockets into “smart sockets” by adding Wi-Fi and an on-off switch, among other. A smart lightbulb was sourced from Gearbest in China. At the time, these were the cheapest and most basic elements for a starter smart home environment.

Via a smartphone app, the light could be switched on from the other side of the world. It sounds trivial and silly, but on such basic functions the future is slowly built.

Fast forward a year or two, and these components are available from hundreds of outlets, they have plummeted in cost, and the range of options is bewildering. That, of course, makes the quest even more bewildering. Who can be trusted for quality, fulfilment and after-sales support? Which products will be obsolete in the next year or two as technology advances even more rapidly?

These are some of the challenges that a leading South African technology distributor, Syntech, decided to address in adding smart home products to its portfolio. It selected LifeSmart, a global brand with proven expertise in both IoT and smart home products.

Equally significantly, LifeSmart combines IoT with artificial intelligence and machine learning, meaning that the devices “learn” the best ways of connecting, sharing and integrating new elements. Because they all fall under the same brand, they are designed to integrate with the LifeSmart app, which is available for Android and iOS phones, as well as Android TV.

Click here to read about how LifeSmart makes installing smart home devices easier.

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Matrics must prepare for AI

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students writing a test

By Vian Chinner, CEO and founder of Xineoh.

Many in the matric class of 2018 are currently weighing up their options for the future. With the country’s high unemployment rate casting a shadow on their opportunities, these future jobseekers have been encouraged to look into which skills are required by the market, tailoring their occupational training to align with demand and thereby improving their chances of finding a job, writes Vian Chinner – a South African innovator, data scientist and CEO of the machine learning company specialising in consumer behaviour prediction, Xineoh.

With rapid innovation and development in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), all careers – including high-demand professions like engineers, teachers and electricians – will look significantly different in the years to come.

Notably, the third wave of internet connectivity, whereby our physical world begins to merge with that of the internet, is upon us. This is evident in how widespread AI is being implemented across industries as well as in our homes with the use of automation solutions and bots like Siri, Google Assistant, Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana. So much data is collected from the physical world every day and AI makes sense of it all.

Not only do new industries related to technology like AI open new career paths, such as those specialising in data science, but it will also modify those which already exist. 

So, what should matriculants be considering when deciding what route to take?

For highly academic individuals, who are exceptionally strong in mathematics, data science is definitely the way to go. There is, and will continue to be, massive demand internationally as well as locally, with Element-AI noting that there are only between 0 and 100 data scientists in South Africa, with the true number being closer to 0.

In terms of getting a foot in the door to become a successful data scientist, practical experience, working with an AI-focused business, is essential. Students should consider getting an internship while they are studying or going straight into an internship, learning on the job and taking specialist online courses from institutions like Stanford University and MIT as they go.

This career path is, however, limited to the highly academic and mathematically gifted, but the technology is inevitably going to overlap with all other professions and so, those who are looking to begin their careers should take note of which skills will be in demand in future, versus which will be made redundant by AI.

In the next few years, technicians who are able to install and maintain new technology will be highly sought after. On the other hand, many entry level jobs will likely be taken care of by AI – from the slicing and dicing currently done by assistant chefs, to the laying of bricks by labourers in the building sector.

As a rule, students should be looking at the skills required for the job one step up from an entry level position and working towards developing these. Those training to be journalists, for instance, should work towards the skill level of an editor and a bookkeeping trainee, the role of financial consultant.

This also means that new workforce entrants should be prepared to walk into a more demanding role, with more responsibility, than perhaps previously anticipated and that the country’s education and training system should adapt to the shift in required skills.

The matric classes of 2018 have completed their schooling in the information age and we should be equipping them, and future generations, for the future market – AI is central to this.

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