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Boffins test voice-activated secure credit card

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Boffins have developed a credit card that works only when it hears its owner's voice.

A prototype card from Santa Monica, California-based Beepcard comes with a built-in voice recognition chip, miniature battery, microphone and speaker.

To operate the card a user would need to press a button on the card's surface and provide a password. If the in-built voice recognition technology authenticates this voice then it emits an variable audible squawk, which a merchant's server can recognise and thereafter allow a transaction to proceed. The system would allow merchants to establish a customer has a card and is the authorised user for customer not present transactions, a notorious source of credit card fraud.

The technology is based on a refinement of a non-voice activated version of the card (which could only establish that a person had a credit card; it still might be stolen). In the case of both old and new technologies the audible signal from a card differs according to a preset order known by the server, but unfathomable to crooks. The principle is the same as that used by two-factor authentication devices commonly used for authenticating remote access.

Although two-year battery life isn't a problem with the prototype card (whose circuit is only switched on when its button is depressed), size is more of a challenge. The prototype card is three times the size of a regular credit card. Also merchants would have to support Beepcard's technology.

Visa, which already makes some use of voice recognition technology on telephone calls, is cautiously enthusiastic about the idea. "It's an interesting idea but the transaction has got to be user friendly. You wouldn't want to increase the time it takes," Visa spokesman Colin Baptie told New Scientist.

Respected security expert Bruce Schneier is far more enthusiastic. ""It's a physical authentication system that doesn't require any special reader hardware. You can use it on a random computer at an internet cafe. You can use it on a telephone. If the price is cheap enough, Beepcard has a winner here," he writes in his monthly Cryptogram newsletter. ®

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