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Nationwide, the UK's largest remaining building society, last week announced plans to roll out biometric signature capture and verification technology to all its branches in the UK. Work will begin on the installation during the first quarter of 2003.

By embedding biometric signature data into electronic documents, Nationwide hopes to "remove paper from branches and eliminate filing and retrieval systems". A bold ambition, particularly in the banking sector where notarised paper receipts are very much the order of the day.

Nationwide believes that the ability to check a signature and its biometric data against previously captured information provides a more robust method of verifying a customer's identity than current visual checks of signatures. The building society believes adopting new technology will make its business processes more efficient and help save it money.

Nationwide's system, which is complaint with UK legislation on electronic signatures, has been developed over the last two years. Should there be any dispute over transactions, forensic data captured when a transaction is made will help settle the point, Nationwide believes. A built in diagnostics system and audit trail enables Nationwide to prove an individual signature pad was working correctly at any given time.

In Nationwide's system, electronic pads sample the signature 200 times a second capturing data including the position of the stylus and the pressure exerted on the pad. In addition, the physical characteristics of the signature and the overall time taken to complete it are recorded. This forensic data is embedded in the electronic document and can be retrieved by the system at a later date to be used as verification of the customer's identity.

Most forgers only have access to the physical shape of a signature, either by finding a receipt or a stolen card. They cannot copy the pressure used during the signing of a signature, nor the speed of stroke used. Both vary during the process of signing a document and are extremely difficult to mimic.

Because of this Nationwide hopes the technology might help reduce fraud, at least in its own branches. If a crook steals you debit card and uses it in a retail outlet, Nationwide's system won't make a difference. If you loose a savings book, things might well be better though.

Nationwide has signed contracts with two suppliers, MotionTouch and Florentis, to develop the system. If successfully rolled out to all of its branches, the system would be the UK's largest installation of biometrics in a retail environment. The system is based on electronic signature software provided by Communication Intelligence Corporation (CIC).

The installation is phase two of a three-phase project. Phase one was to allow signatures already imaged to be viewed on screen by customer advisors and was completed in August 2001. Phase two is aimed at eliminating paper from the process by embedding signatures, including biometric data, into electronic documents. Phase three will involve the storage and automated verification of signatures.

Nationwide has a history of pioneeering new technologies in the traditionally conservative banking sector.

In 1998, Nationwide and NCR piloted an iris recognition system, developed by Sensar Inc, in a cash machine and at branch counter positions. The trial was the first public test of an iris recognition system.

As a Nationwide customer, and one that's impressed by its general level of competence, I have to say I've never come across one of these iris recognition machines - which strike me as slightly scary, and best left to the realms of defence establishments.

Even if this signature recognition technology is a success, and on first take it looks a lot more promising than many ideas in biometrics, its hardly going to lead to a paperless bank.

Unless Nationwide stops handling money, that is. ®

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