Forget Apple Pay. Mastercard's got a fingerprint reader

The payment company is developing a card that includes a built-in fingerprint sensor.

Ben Fox Rubin Former senior reporter
Ben Fox Rubin was a senior reporter for CNET News in Manhattan, reporting on Amazon, e-commerce and mobile payments. He previously worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and got his start at newspapers in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Ben Fox Rubin
2 min read
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An early image of biometric plastic.


Plastic credit and debit cards have been around for nearly 60 years, but apparently there are still new innovations to squeeze into them.

Mastercard on Thursday said a new biometric credit card it's developing completed two pilots in South Africa, with plans for more tests coming soon in Europe and Asia. Mastercard said the card could reach customers in the US by early next year.

The card includes a small fingerprint reader and can store up to two fingerprints on its chip. When someone inserts the card into a chip-reading payment terminal, he or she places a finger on the fingerprint reader. The terminal then registers the cardholder and the payment in the same time it takes for a regular chip payment to work.

No need for a PIN or signature or a new payment terminal. No need for batteries in the card either, since the card can harvest power from existing terminals. Also, the new cards are just as thin as existing plastic cards.

These cards may find their place with wealthy, jet-setting cardholders and corporate credit card accounts since they're more expensive to make and offer significantly better security than the typical four-digit PIN or signature. With these kinds of cards, Mastercard says no one can use your card but you, even if it gets stolen. (And, no, they probably won't work with a severed thumb since these cards are for in-store payments. Try explaining that to the cashier.)

In South Africa, the cards were tested by employees of the supermarket chain Pick n Pay and Absa Bank, a subsidiary of Barclays Africa. For now, people will need to register their fingerprints at a store or bank branch, but Mastercard is already working on a way to do that from home.

Mastercard's new cards offer a change of pace from the whirlwind of activity around mobile and digital payments, with a growing list of new payment concepts like paying with your face (which also comes from Mastercard) and paying with a ring (both Visa and Mastercard created those). Apple, which is still expected to dominate the contactless payment market, uses fingerprint tech with Apple Pay.

After all, tried and true plastic is still pretty darn popular, so why not teach it a few new tricks.

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