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Square pushes pay-by-facial recognition

For when NFC is just too secure

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Web 2.0 darling Square is promising to make everyone a regular by promoting pay-by-face: just smile and ask to have your purchase put onto your bill with no authentication required.

The system, which is opt in, knows which store you are in from the location of your phone, so presents the iPad-equipped shopkeeper with photographs of customers nearby – the customer identifies themselves by name and the shop taps on the corresponding photo, the customer then gets an electronic receipt.

There's explaining the concept for the hard of thinking, complete with jolly soundtrack:

The video takes place in a venue where they don't get a lot of customers, which helps, and one can't help thinking that the same process would be fraught with complications in a busy Starbucks, not to mention the obvious security implications.

Using photographs for identity has been thought of before; the credit card companies tried it a long time ago and discovered it was less reliable than signatures. So cursory was the facial-checking that one experimenter successfully used a card featuring a photograph of a gorilla's face, without shop staff blinking.

Users of Square's new service have to opt in, for each specific merchant, and get an electronic receipt, so anything beyond petty fraud should be noticed quite quickly. Users might have a hard time arguing that they didn't authorise a payment, but we'd assume a vendor couldn't do that very often without being blacklisted.

The service will appeal to those who want to appear popular, but don’t want to invest all that time patronising the same establishment, which is probably a significant number of people. But shopkeepers may prove more reluctant, as they'll have to have enough computing power, and connectivity, behind the till to make it work.

Square certainly needs more retailers signed up: its policy of giving away swipe readers is expensive and the company isn't going to justify its $1bn valuation with retailers only generating eight cents a week. Square showed this particular concept back in May, before it raised another $100m in VC cash, but it has now enabled the feature and produced a new video emphasising how the service enables shopkeepers to greet you by name as well as taking your money automatically. ®

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