When it comes to verifying a customer’s identity, there might be something in the eye. That’s what Wells Fargo is banking on, which is why it has awarded thousands of dollars to EyeVerify, a Kansas City-based startup that transforms a picture of your eye into a key that protects your digital life.
The investment is part of a startup accelerator effort Wells Fargo is launching for innovators whose technology and ideas in payments, deposits, fraud, operations and other fields could shape future customer experiences in financial services.
“For Wells Fargo to work on big ideas and spark innovators inside our organization, we need to expand our access to new ideas at the edges of our industry,” said Steve Ellis, executive vice president and head of Wholesale Services at Wells Fargo.
How does it work?
The patented biometric technology developed by EyeVerify works by letting a user hold a smartphone close to his or her face (about 8 inches away) to take a picture of their eyeball. The EyeVerify security app maps the blood vessels within the sclera, or the white part of your eye, and pulls out hundreds of features to create a unique identification. That data is mixed and scrambled to create a key, or ID token, that stays on your device. To unlock your bank account — or to access an app that contains sensitive data — simply take a selfie of your eye. Should your eye selfie match the key stored on your phone, you will be given access.
“We’re taking a picture of your eye and transforming that into your key that replaces your password,” said EyeVerify CEO Toby Rush.
You might call the unique data contained in your eyeballs your “eyeprint.” Rush says that using your eyes to unlock a password is much more reliable than using someone’s face or voice. Face recognition isn’t accurate enough, he says, because it’s not robust or stable enough. Growing facial hair or changing your expression might throw off the facial recognition software, which is one reason why Rush doesn’t trust it as an authenticator. Voice recognition is more accurate than facial recognition, but the Achilles heel, of course, is that it’s not a discreet process. You have to speak out loud in order to be recognized — not exactly kosher if you’re trying to transfer money from your bank to someone else’s account. Plus, environmental noise might affect the accuracy of voice recognition.
“With EyeVerify, you can use your phone’s native camera. It’s quiet. It’s passive. It’s much more natural,” says Rush.
Is it safe and accurate?
In today’s selfie culture, taking a picture of your eye doesn’t seem so out of the ordinary. With the EyeVerify security app, the chances of a hacker getting into your bank account by stealing your PIN or password decrease significantly, reducing the possibility of fraud. Rush says skeptics of the technology should feel at ease because your bank never sees your biometric data (known as the records that uniquely identify you, such as your eye vessels). That information stays on your device. The company has also conducted third-party validation studies on the accuracy of using an “eyeprint” to replace a password.
Rush says the technology even works with bloodshot eyes — or other conditions like pink eye or allergies that could change an eye’s appearance — because eyeprint algorithms look for strong vein patterns and descriptors. Small capillaries or more pronounced veins have very little impact. As for the potential for a person’s eyeprint to change over time, Rush’s team has studied that possibility. Initial studies indicate an eyeprint is stable for a minimum of two years. Anecdotal evidence indicates more than seven years of stability.
Other institutions besides Wells Fargo have taken notice of the ID technology. EyeVerify has received about $6 million in funding from companies like Samsung, Sprint and the Chinese web security firm Qihoo 360.
With the funding EyeVerify has received, Rush says the money will be used for two big purposes. One is marketing so that a variety of industries adopt EyeVerify’s technology. EyeVerify sells a software development kit that companies can integrate into their existing apps. The other is focusing on the consumer by working closely with smartphone manufacturers to improve technology. A better camera will give a more accurate reading of your eyes, for instance. Still, the technology doesn’t require any specialized hardware. Consumers can use existing cameras already in your device since only a one megapixel camera is needed as a hardware requirement.
Rush says the company is currently speaking with a variety of banks about adopting the technology, which can be used for a variety of financial transactions, including protecting consumers’ phones when they utilize mobile banking and ensuring safe payments over the phone.
The future of banking
EyeVerify is one of three innovative startups that has been selected and funded to pilot the Wells Fargo Startup Accelerator. The other startups are Zumigo, a San Jose-based developer of mobile services using a unique combination of location and mobile identity technologies to secure commerce and enable mobile marketing, and Kasisto, builder of artificial intelligence technology that improves the consumer experience on mobile devices through intelligent conversation.
In addition to these three firms, Wells Fargo’s effort will give 10 to 20 other young companies each year the chance to develop and refine products in a collaborative environment.
“We’re interested in any technology that could be used by an institution like Wells Fargo to better serve our customers or operate our business,” said Ellis. “Analytics, big data, mobile, security, and infrastructure are all important to us. We’re looking to engage with innovators beyond the edge of our own creative enterprise.”
With its investment in EyeVerify, you could say Wells Fargo is keeping a watchful eye on the future of banking.