Chip & PIN, liability shift and the game of chicken (part I)

The Target data-breach has resurrected interest in the deployment of chip & PIN technology in the US. Part of the EMV suite of protocols dating back to the 1990s, this scheme aims to supplement the ubiquitous magnetic-stripes on credit and debit cards with a small embedded chip, capable of providing greater resilience against common threats against payment systems, such as compromised point-of-sale terminals– what appears to have been the root cause for Target’s headaches.

While chip & PIN is common in Europe, it remains something of a rarity in the US, both on the issuer and merchant side. Few banks issue cards containing chips, a market niche limited to the travelers planning to spend significant time overseas where some merchants may not accept a signature-based transaction. The acceptance story for merchants is worse for understandable reasons: there is little incentive for merchants to undertake the cost of upgrading the installed base of readers. Chip & PIN cards still have a plain magnetic stripe on the back usable for traditional swipe transactions, which means that even merchants catering to tourists from abroad can continue to accept card payments without upgrading. (In fairness even an enthusiastic merchant could not upgrade unilaterally. There is usually a third-party payment processing service connected to those terminals and handling the back-end of transactions. Without upgrades in that system, installing new point-of-sale terminals is not enough.) No wonder that articles going back to 2001 bemoan the fact that all the sophisticated hardware going into chipped cards is mostly sitting idle.

Ironically contactless payments using NFC may have done more to facilitate the adoption of EMV protocols than chip & PIN. Despite being a newer technology, NFC has faced the exact same uphill battle for adoption because the incentives for issuers and merchants have been unclear. Issuers benefit by having less fraud in theory since NFC eliminates some of the weaknesses of traditional magnetic stripes– provided users are actually transacting over NFC instead of swiping the cards, which in turn a function of the installed base at merchants. So the issuer savings depend on merchant adoption rate. If merchants also stood to gain from increased NFC issuance, this circular dependency could have at least created a positive feedback loop. Yet none of the savings are passed on to merchants. They are still paying the same interchange fee for every payment transacted using the card networks; there is no discount over plastic for accepting NFC. At best one could argue that tap & pay transactions are faster than traditional swipe, which matters mainly for a small category of merchants who stand to gain considerably from shaving a few seconds from the time for serving each customer: coffee shops, fast-food outlets and similar high-volume, low-margin businesses looking to squeeze more orders per hour.

There is of course an undeniable PR/reputation gain from being on the cutting edge of new technology, and this applies to all actors in the system: issuer, merchants and card-holders. Google Wallet arguably provided some of that momentum, by packaging the technology in smart phone form-factor and appealing to technology savvy early adopters with a virtual card proxying transactions in real-time. But even that remained limited by the installed base of NFC readers, prompting Google to offer the same  virtual card in old-school plastic format.

Given that chip & PIN faces the same uphill battle, how will the card networks encourage adoption?

In the UK the answer was a unilateral mandate from issuing banks, accompanied by a liability shift. The banks adopted the convenient stance that because chip & PIN technology is so robust, any transaction authorized by PIN must have been carried out by the original card-holder. In case of disputed transactions, consumers are presumed guilty until proven innocent. Not surprisingly, this has lead to a strong backlash, coupled with a growing literature in security research suggesting that EMV protocols are far from being invincible; in fact basic design flaws allow fraudulent transaction without the PIN.

Either chastened by the contentious PR battle or perhaps reluctant to directly challenge protections afforded by federal laws around consumer liability, card networks have decided to take a different approach in the US: pitting merchants and issuers against each other.



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