Commentary: Photographs are no cure-all

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The Independent Online
The police are strongly in favour of putting photographs on all plastic credit, debit and cheque cards, to cut the cost of crime, and they speak warmly of the pilot project run by the Royal Bank of Scotland. There have been no cases of fraud using the 8,000 cards issued so far. Detective Chief Inspector Alan Brown of Scotland Yard reckons that if everybody followed this lead there would be a large reduction in the pounds 400m a year cost of fraud to banks, building societies and retailers. But is the case for immediate widespread use of photographs yet proven, despite the fact that 89 per cent of cardholders appear to favour them?

There are several worries about what would be a costly exercise for the banks or their customers. Over half of customers are unwilling to pay the extra costs involved, according to a poll commissioned by Reader's Digest from Mori, an attitude that makes most of the banks particularly reluctant to adopt the scheme.

The pilot project requires volunteers, and they may well be more careful and thoughtful people than the average cardholder.

As the photographs are a novelty, they may also attract more care and attention from users and retailers. If millions come into use, current slapdash standards of signature verification may well spread to cards with photographs, so the higher security may not be all that it is claimed to be, once it becomes a national system.

There may also be other technically more attractive and enduring answers using computer technology to make smart cards that contain personal information - not just personal identification numbers - to verify ownership. That kind of technology can be developed as bank computer systems improve, which is not true of photographs. By all means carry on with the experiments, but it may be wrong to opt too quickly for photos.