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AUTHENTICATION BY ‘SELFIE’ – WILL MASTERCARD BRING A SMILE TO THE PAYMENTS WORLD? HOW SECURE IS IT AND HOW HAS THE MARKET RESPONDED?

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Sascha Breite

Sascha Breite, Head of Future Payments at SIX Payment Services

Sascha Breite

Sascha Breite

An increasing number of companies are working on new procedures that quickly and conveniently prove the identity of users making payments. Sascha Breite, Head Future Payments at the payment specialist SIX Payment Services, gives the idea a reality check and examines other European initiatives.

At the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, MasterCard announced the launch of a new authentication solution: payment by ‘selfie’. This follows last summer’s announcement when, MasterCard stated that it wanted to make passwords and payment codes superfluous.

The rise of the selfie is unstoppable. MasterCard is now counting on self-portraits for its payment procedures. Cardholders will soon be able to take a selfie at the supermarket cash register instead of entering a password in order to identify themselves as the genuine user.  By the middle of 2016, MasterCard’s German customers should be able to prove their identity and authenticate payments using a ‘selfie’. Following this “Selfie Pay” is said to be launched in Austria in 2017.  Ajay Bhalla, the head of MasterCard’s security department is convinced that the “selfie generation” will welcome and use the new feature.

Blink to beat misuse

For the procedure to work, users must install the MasterCard app “Selfie Pay” on their smartphone, tablet or PC, and save a sample picture of themselves. A unique code is created using the image data. The selfie taken at the point of payment is then transmitted to MasterCard in an encrypted form and compared with the saved code. Alternatively, customers can prove their identity with their fingerprint, according to a BBC report. Once the user is successfully identified, all they need to do is confirm the transaction.

However, cardholders must not forget to blink in the selfie. The software uses this eye movement as a means of ensuring that a fraudster is not just holding up a photo to the camera. MasterCard seems to be aware that this security measure alone is insufficient. Yet to date, the company has only mentioned vaguely other security measures. A spokesman said that the system recognises attempts at fraud because it evaluates other data. However, security researcher Jan Krissler from the technical university of Berlin (TU Berlin) moved a pencil over the eyes of a photo – which a scanner interpreted as blinking and thus the software accepted the payment. There are more extensive means of face identification by way of 3D models which offer significantly better fraud prevention but these are still in the development phase.

Is the payments market moving to a password-free world?

Banks, financial institutions and payment service providers are working to create a world which functions without the need to input passwords. They are counting on unique biometric features, such as customers’ fingerprints or voices, or even the blood flow in their fingertips to authenticate payments. “Consumers hate passwords,” states Bhalla with conviction. Apparently the most-used password is 123456. This is in itself very insecure, but in addition many people also use the same password for multiple purposes. “If they are hacked, the intruder has access to almost all their data,” explains Bhalla.

Payment by ‘selfie’ is only one of a number of authentication initiatives currently being developed. In 2015, at CeBIT, Alibaba boss Jack Ma demonstrated the payment procedure “Smile to Pay“, an app that recognises and authenticates customers based on the shape of their face. Google is currently testing a “Hands Free” app and the UK’s Atom Bank is planning to introduce face scanners. Barclays, a UK-based financial service provider, has developed an authentication procedure that measures the bloodflow in a customer’s finger. Deutsche Bank is also planning to introduce biometric verification processes with a system that recognises whether the accountholder or a third party is holding the mobile phone being used for a payment. Payment transfers are already feasible via fingerprinting at Deutsche Bank.

New EU directive on payment services

MasterCard tested “Selfie Pay” in a pilot program with 500 participants in the United States and the Netherlands in 2015. According to a BBC report, it will be rolled out in 14 countries this summer, including the UK, France and Germany. The launch in Austria is scheduled for 2017. Yet in countries like Germany, where people are concerned about data protection, MasterCard will not find it easy to convince people to make even more of their personal data available.

It is likely that MasterCard will not reveal any details on security until the service is launched. But an EU directive passed in 2015 obliges providers of mobile payment services to use a strict client authentication procedure through “the use of two or more elements categorised as knowledge (something only the user knows), possession (something only the user possesses) and inherence (something the user is).”

Ultimately, the more data companies gather, the more money they can demand for it. The amount of data that MasterCard, Google & others collect depends on customers’ habits – and whether they are prepared to change them.  Time will tell whether users really prefer to constantly make photos of themselves rather than remembering a password. Some people therefore see MasterCard’s “Selfie Pay” app as a marketing stunt rather than a genuinely market changing development.

There is a school of thought that believes that fingerprint checks are simpler to implement and use in practice. It is clear however that MasterCard will attempt to persuade existing and new customers of the benefits of its new payment function. If it   proves popular amongst the selfie generation, it may spread beyond this group to the wider population.

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Airbus CEO urges trade war ceasefire, easing of COVID travel bans

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Airbus CEO urges trade war ceasefire, easing of COVID travel bans 1

By Tim Hepher

PARIS (Reuters) – The head of European planemaker Airbus called on Saturday for a “ceasefire” in a transatlantic trade war over aircraft subsidies, saying tit-for-tat tariffs on planes and other goods had aggravated damage from the COVID-19 crisis.

Washington progressively imposed import duties of 15% on Airbus jets from 2019 after a prolonged dispute at the World Trade Organization, and the EU responded with matching tariffs on Boeing jets a year later. Wine, whisky and other goods are also affected.

“This dispute, which is now an old dispute, has put us in a lose-lose situation,” Airbus Chief Executive Guillaume Faury said in a radio interview.

“We have ended up in a situation where wisdom would normally dictate that we have a ceasefire and resolve this conflict,” he told France Inter.

Boeing was not immediately available for comment.

Brazil, which has waged separate battles with Canada over subsidies for smaller regional jets, on Thursday dropped its own complaint against Ottawa and called for a global peace deal between producing nations on support for aerospace.

Faury said the dispute with Boeing was particularly damaging during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has badly hit air travel and led to travel restrictions or border closures. He expressed particular concern about widening bans within Europe.

“We are extremely frustrated by the barriers that restrict personal movement and it is almost impossible today to travel in Europe by plane, even domestically,” he said.

“The priority no. 1 for countries in general is to reopen frontiers and allow people to travel on the basis of tests and then eventually vaccinations.”

The comments come as businesses increase pressure on governments to reopen economies as coronavirus vaccine roll-outs gather pace across Europe.

France has defended recently introduced border restrictions, saying they will help the government avoid a new lockdown and stay in force until at least the end of February.

Germany installed border controls with the Czech Republic and Austria last Sunday, drawing protest from Austria and concerns about supply-chain disruptions.

Berlin calls the move a temporary measure of last resort.

Poland said on Saturday it had not ruled out imposing restrictions at the country’s borders with Slovakia and the Czech Republic due to rising COVID-19 cases.

(Reporting by Tim Hepher; Editing by Kirsten Donovan)

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Why a predictable cold snap crippled the Texas power grid

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Why a predictable cold snap crippled the Texas power grid 2

By Tim McLaughlin and Stephanie Kelly

(Reuters) – As Texans cranked up their heaters early Monday to combat plunging temperatures, a record surge of electricity demand set off a disastrous chain reaction in the state’s power grid.

Wind turbines in the state’s northern Panhandle locked up. Natural gas plants shut down when frozen pipes and components shut off fuel flow. A South Texas nuclear reactor went dark after a five-foot section of uninsulated pipe seized up. Power outages quickly spread statewide – leaving millions shivering in their homes for days, with deadly consequences.

It could have been far worse: Before dawn on Monday, the state’s grid operator was “seconds and minutes” away from an uncontrolled blackout for its 26 million customers, its CEO has said. Such a collapse occurs when operators lose the ability to manage the crisis through rolling blackouts; in such cases, it can take weeks or months to fully restore power to customers.

Monday was one of the state’s coldest days in more than a century – but the unprecedented power crisis was hardly unpredictable after Texas had experienced a similar, though less severe, disruption during a 2011 cold snap. Still, Texas power producers failed to adequately winter-proof their systems. And the state’s grid operator underestimated its need for reserve power capacity before the crisis, then moved too slowly to tell utilities to institute rolling blackouts to protect against a grid meltdown, energy analysts, traders and economists said.

Early signs of trouble came long before the forced outages. Two days earlier, for example, the grid suddenly lost 539 megawatts (MW) of power, or enough electricity for nearly 108,000 homes, according to operational messages disclosed by the state’s primary grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT).

The crisis stemmed from a unique confluence of weaknesses in the state’s power system.

Texas is the only state in the continental United States with an independent and isolated grid. That allows the state to avoid federal regulation – but also severely limits its ability to draw emergency power from other grids. ERCOT also operates the only major U.S. grid that does not have a capacity market – a system that provides payments to operators to be on standby to supply power during severe weather events.

After more than 3 million ERCOT customers lost power in a February 2011 freeze, federal regulators recommended that ERCOT prepare for winter with the same urgency as it does the peak summer season. They also said that, while ERCOT’s reserve power capacity looked good on paper, it did not take into account that many generation units could get knocked offline by freezing weather.

“There were prior severe cold weather events in the Southwest in 1983, 1989, 2003, 2006, 2008, and 2010,” Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and North American Electric Reliability Corp staff summarized after investigating the state’s 2011 rolling blackouts. “Extensive generator failures overwhelmed ERCOT’s reserves, which eventually dropped below the level of safe operation.”

ERCOT spokeswoman Leslie Sopko did not comment in detail about the causes of the power crisis but said the grid’s leadership plans to re-evaluate the assumptions that go into its forecasts.

The freeze was easy to see coming, said Jay Apt, co-director of the Carnegie Mellon Electricity Industry Center.

“When I read that this was a black-swan event, I just have to wonder whether the folks who are saying that have been in this business long enough that they forgot everything, or just came into it,” Apt said. “People need to recognize that this sort of weather is pretty common.”

This week’s cold snap left 4.5 million ERCOT customers without power. More than 14.5 million Texans endured a related water-supply crisis as pipes froze and burst. About 65,000 customers remained without power as of Saturday afternoon, even as temperatures started to rise, according to website PowerOutage.US.

State health officials have linked more than two dozen deaths to the power crisis. Some died from hypothermia or possible carbon monoxide poisoning caused by portable generators running in basements and garages without enough ventilation. Officials say they suspect the death count will rise as more bodies are discovered.

THIN POWER RESERVE

In the central Texas city of Austin, the state capital, the minimum February temperature usually falls between 42 and 48 degrees Fahrenheit (5 to 9 degrees Celsius). This past week, temperatures fell as low as 6 degrees Fahrenheit (-14 degrees Celsius).

In November, ERCOT assured that the grid was prepared to handle such a dire scenario.

“We studied a range of potential risks under both normal and extreme conditions, and believe there is sufficient generation to adequately serve our customers,” said ERCOT’s manager of resource adequacy, Pete Warnken, in a report that month.

Warnken could not be reached for comment on Saturday.

Under normal winter conditions, ERCOT forecast it would have about 16,200 MW of power reserves. But under extreme conditions, it predicted a reserve cushion of only about 1,350 MW. That assumed only 23,500 MW of generation outages. During the peak of this week’s crisis, more than 30,000 MW was forced off the grid.

Other U.S. grid operators maintain a capacity market to supply extra power in extreme conditions – paying operators on an ongoing basis, whether they produce power or not. Capacity market auctions determine, three years in advance, the price that power generators receive in exchange for being on emergency standby.

Instead, ERCOT relies on a wholesale electricity market, where free market pricing provides incentives for generators to provide daily power and to make investments to ensure reliability in peak periods, according to economists. The system relied on the theory that power plants should make high profits when energy demand and prices soar – providing them ample money to make investments in, for example, winterization. The Texas legislature restructured the state’s electric market in 1999.

LOOMING CRISIS

Since 2010, ERCOT’s reserve margin – the buffer between generation capacity versus forecasted demand – has dropped to about 10% from about 20%. This has put pressure on generators during demand spikes, making the grid less flexible, according to North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), a nonprofit regulator.

That thin margin for error set off alarms early Monday morning among energy traders and analysts as they watched a sudden drop in the electrical frequency of the Texas grid. One analyst compared it to watching the pulse of a hospital patient drop to life-threatening levels.

Too much of a drop is catastrophic because it would trigger automatic relay switches to disconnect power sources from the grid, setting off uncontrolled blackouts statewide. Dan Jones, an energy analyst at Monterey LLC, watched from his home office in Delaware as the grid’s frequency dropped quickly toward the point that would trigger the automatic shutdowns.

“If you’re not in control, and you are letting the equipment do it, that’s just chaos,” Jones said.

By Sunday afternoon about 3:15 p.m. (CST), ERCOT’s control room signaled it had run out of options to boost electric generation to match the soaring demand. Operators issued a warning that there was “no market solution” for the projected shortage, according to control room messages published by ERCOT on its website.

Adam Sinn, president of Houston-based energy trading firm Aspire Commodities, said ERCOT waited far too long to start telling utilities to cut customers’ power to guard against a grid meltdown. The problems, he said, were readily apparent several days before Monday.

“ERCOT was letting the system get weaker and weaker and weaker,” Sinn said in an interview. “I was thinking: Holy shit, what is this grid operator doing? He has to cut load.”

Sinn said he started texting his friends on Sunday night, warning them to expect widespread outages.

‘SECONDS AND MINUTES’

Early Monday morning, one of the largest sources of electricity in the state – the unit 1 reactor at the South Texas Nuclear Generating Station – stopped producing power after the small section of pipe froze in temperatures that averaged 17 degrees Fahrenheit (9 degrees Celsius). The grid lost access to 1,350 MW of nuclear power – enough to power about 270,000 homes – after automatic sensors detected the frozen pipe and protectively shut down the reactor, said Victor Dricks, a spokesman for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

About 2:30 a.m. (CST), the South Plains Electric Cooperative in Lubbock said it received a phone call from ERCOT to cut power to its customers. Inside the ERCOT control room, staff members scrambled to call utilities and cooperatives statewide to tell them to do the same, according to operational messages disclosed by the grid operator.

Three days later, ERCOT Chief Executive Bill Magness acknowledged that the grid operator had only narrowly avoided the calamity of uncontrolled blackouts.

“If we hadn’t taken action,” he said on Thursday, “it was seconds and minutes (away), given the amount of generation that was coming off the system at the same time that the demand was still going up.”

(Reporting by Tim McLaughlin and Stephanie Kelly; additional reporting by Nichola Groom; editing by Simon Webb and Brian Thevenot)

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UK could declare Brexit ‘water wars’ – The Telegraph

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(Reuters) – Britain could restrict imports of European mineral water and several food products under retaliatory measures being considered by ministers over Brussels’ refusal to end its blockade on British shellfish, the Telegraph reported.

Senior government sources pointed to potential restrictions on the importing of mineral water and seed potatoes, the report said.

(Reporting by Maria Ponnezhath in Bengaluru; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

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