NFC, Biometrics Bring Security to Crypto Payment Card

By Claire Swedberg

Cryptocurrency startup Unikeys is employing Near Field Communication and biometric technology in its payment card, so that users can safely make payments with tokens from services such as Bitcoin without exposing passwords or other data to the Internet.

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Hong Kong cryptocurrency solutions company Unikeys has partnered with security technology firm MeReal Biometrics to provide Unikeys’ customers with a battery-powered fingerprint card that employs RFID technology, Bluetooth, a fingerprint sensor and acoustics to enable and secure payments at stores.

The UKey card is aimed at providing biometric authentication during cryptocurrency-based transactions. The exchange of digital assets, such as tokens, through cryptocurrency is gaining share in financial transactions worldwide, and some companies and banks are now striving to make these cryptocurrency transactions possible and secure in stores. The UKey card serves as a payment card in either contact or contactless modes, says Alexandre Tabbakh, Unikeys’ CEO and co-founder, and enables secure cryptocurrency and token-based payments at the point of sale (POS).

The UKey card

Unikeys launched in early 2018, following two years of research and development, as a provider of universal tools for cryptocurrency ecosystems. The UKey card is its first commercially available product. Although cryptocurrencies launched with some hype around Bitcoin, Tabbakh says, traction has been slow and steady. Crypto payments can be made online, but are still rare at brick-and-mortar stores and other physical locations.

Until now, Tabbakh says, “there’s been a huge gap in crypto acceptance because there’s been no robust and user-friendly tool to help vendors accept crypto payments.” Merchants have their own POS terminals connected to MasterCard and Visa. Transitioning to crypto payments in stores will require a secure cryptocurrency-based wallet that can be presented at a point of sale, and a POS capacity to receive crypto payments securely.

The UKey provides the bridge by acting similarly to a credit card, but with cryptocurrencies and tokens rather than a bank account number. Merchants that offer cryptocurrency payments often employ a QR code that customers would scan to make a Web-based payment.

To ensure the security of these payments with cryptocurrencies, users traditionally store private keys on their phones or in Web-based “hot wallets.” However, hot wallets come with inherent vulnerability because they are connected to the Internet any time they are used, thus exposing them to possible hacking. Taking a further step, some people use “cold wallets” that require writing keywords they might record on paper or store in a USB device. In that way, they can ensure those keys are not vulnerable to hackers—but that makes the cryptocurrency more complex to use in daily activities. “I don’t see Grandma using a USB drive to make a transaction,” Tabbakh says.

With the UKey card, a user controls the currency on the card, as opposed to it being on the Internet. In that way, the UKey card serves as a wallet that stores the cryptocurrency keys and tokens that the cardholder is using for payments. It can include Bitcoin, Ether, Bitcoin Cash, Litecoin, ERC20 Tokens and Unikeys Tokens, and offers security without the complexity of storing and securing passwords. That’s where the biosensors and RFID technology come to play.

MeReal Biometrics’ technology leverages multiple sensors and NFC chip to ensure that the person using the card is authorized to do so (see MeReal Biometrics Combines Biometrics and NFC Technologies for New Card Solution). The card includes a fingerprint sensor that ensures it can’t be used by anyone other than the cardholder, as well as wired mode or wireless NFC. The card also includes a 13.56 MHz NFC chip compliant with the ISO 14443 standard, as well as an acoustic frequencies sensor and a rechargeable battery that can be charged wirelessly.

Unikeys’ Alexandre Tabbakh

An individual using the card would first scan his or her fingerprint on the card. The card’s secure element (SE) stores that fingerprint data and requires the matching fingerprint for each transaction. The user then stores a Bitcoin or other token in the card’s SE, which is paired with the fingerprint. The card can accommodate up to eight fingerprints from one individual.

When a payment for a product or service, an individual places his or her finger or thumb over the fingerprint scanner. If he or she is using NFC technology, then that person taps the card near an NFC-enabled reader, which could consist of an NFC-enabled mobile phone or tablet. The transaction is forwarded to the blockchain ledger and is then authenticated. The benefits are multi-faceted for consumers, Tabbakh says. By using the card, he states, “[you can] control your funds, secure your crypto assets and facilitate your user experience.”

To gain substantial traction, products like UKey cards would need adoption of crypto payment functionality among a significant number of merchants, and Unikeys is presently in conversations with several companies about this. The firm intends to launch a pilot in Hong Kong, as well as in other parts of the world. Tabbakh says top-tier banks are already testing cryptocurrency payment systems internally, and he expects some of those banks will be early participants in piloting the technology.

For instance, a bank could provide tokens to consumers, who would then download those token for use with the UKey card at participating stores. The stores could employ their own NFC-enabled devices to capture NFC tag reads. Unikeys is further developing a payment terminal that comes with NFC and Bluetooth functionality, in order to capture tag reads and forward the collected data to a phone or tablet via a Bluetooth connection.