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The next time you check out at a cashier’s register, ask yourself what the most convenient way to pay would be. Cash? Credit? Hand gestures? What if you didn’t have to lift a finger at all?
That’s what Google is trying to do with its new payment system called Hands Free, and while it may sound silly at first glance, it has a lot of potential to be something amazing.
Other companies have tried to simplify the checkout process with all kinds of mobile payment systems — also known as digital wallets — but they’ve proven problematic. Google’s solution may be the best one yet.
Mobile Payment Systems Are Flawed
Mobile payment systems are simple and convenient in theory. All you have to do is install an app (Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, Android Pay, etc.) and link your debit and credit cards. To pay, you only need to “bump” your device with the checkout terminal.
So what’s the problem? Well, there are several.
Data security is a big one. Even though mobile payment systems use super-short wireless signals that require close-range contact, they can still be hijacked and manipulated, leading to all sorts of security risks like data interception and mobile malware.
Also, when using these systems, you’ll probably want to keep NFC enabled on your device for the convenience factor of not having to turn it on or off every time you make a purchase — but leaving NFC enabled can open you up to drive-by NFC hacks. Not good for peace of mind.
Authentication is another issue. What if someone steals your phone? Or what if you lose it and someone else finds it? Now they can use your phone to make purchases. Some companies have tried to circumvent this issue, such as with selfie-based mobile payments, but it’s still imperfect.
And don’t get me started on smart credit cards, which have many of the same risks and issues without offering any solid benefits over these mobile solutions.
Why Google Hands Free Is Better
Hands Free is nothing more than an app that works on Android 4.2 (and newer) and iPhone 4S (and newer). The app uses a combination of data — Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, GPS, and more — to determine if you’re near a store that accepts Hands Free.
At checkout, you tell the cashier that you want to pay with Google. Your Hands Free profile details (initials and a photo) will show up and the cashier will use that to confirm your identity. Hands Free handles payment processing based on cards linked to your account.
This system has three huge advantages.
First, it’s the most convenient option. No longer do you have to rummage through your purse to find your cards or dig in your pockets to take out your phone. Checking out is as simple as speaking one phrase. Payments have never been easier.
Second, it has built-in authentication. Even if somebody steals your phone, they can’t use it to make payments with Hands Free thanks to the name and photo verification. Hands Free also alerts you when it detects suspicious transactions.
There’s also an experimental technique that uses in-store cameras to automatically verify your identity, which adds another layer of security against fraud. In-store camera data is only used for verification, gets deleted immediately afterwards, and isn’t sent to Google.
Third, no sensitive data is ever shared with merchants. Due to the way Hands Free handles payment processing, your full card number is never shared with stores or merchants. This reduces the number of places that can accidentally leak your sensitive data.
This system is only being tested in the San Francisco Bay Area for now. Depending on how that goes, you can expect Google to roll it out in other areas (similar to what they’ve been doing with Google Fiber).
Not only is this an interesting breakthrough, but it could also be a stepping stone to even faster payment methods in the future. We’re one step closer to zipping through drive-thrus in record time!
Note that Google isn’t the first to try something like this. Square introduced hands-free payments in 2011 (now defunct) and PayPal launched its own hands-free payment device in 2013 that never really caught on.
Is Google Hands Free Right for You?
People have already expressed legitimate concerns regarding the whole Hands Free idea, saying it’s too good to be true or that Google isn’t trustworthy enough for this. Maybe, maybe not, but it sure is exciting, isn’t it?
The biggest problem with Hands Free is that it simply isn’t available yet in most places, and as with all new technologies, its success will depend on quick adoption — both by merchants and customers — which won’t be easy.
A lot of people already forego cards like Discover and American Express because they aren’t accepted everywhere, and it’s the same reason why they haven’t jumped on the mobile payment train yet either. When you walk into a store, you don’t want to guess whether they’ll accept a given payment method.
It’s the classic chicken-and-egg problem. Customers won’t adopt it until it’s widely accepted, merchants won’t adopt it until most customers are using it. So for now, Hands Free is very much a gimmick that needs time to prove itself.
But the concept is so incredible that this may not be that big of a hurdle for Google. It won’t be another few years — at the earliest — before this starts going mainstream, but if and when it does, it’s going to rock the world.
So keep your eyes peeled for future announcements regarding this project, unless you’re an early adopter of new technologies and you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, in which case you should give it a try and see how you like it.
What do you think of Hands Free? Is it the answer we’ve been looking for or is it just another risk for digital identity theft? Would you use it? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!