On Mondex and CBDCs (again)

Black Friday, Cyber Christmas, and a Contact-Free New Year

paper bags near wall

For most of us 2020 isn’t going to be a year to linger fondly in the memory. It’s been a monumental slog in the face of grim news and little cheer but from a payments perspective we’ve seen an unsurprising surge in interest in all things payment related.

People have moved from cash to electronic payments – contactless transaction numbers have soared. People moved from face to face purchases to online. And, there’s been a ton of stress on payment systems as people have demanded refunds for holidays and flights they couldn’t take due to various travel restrictions. It’s been a year like never before.

We can expect this to be exacerbated over what will likely be an extended Black Friday and Christmas holiday shopping period. Online payments are expected to grow even though economies are in recession. For us in Europe it’s the last hurrah before PSD2 requirements on strong customer authentication come into force on January 1st. Merchants and payment companies will be well staffed on News Year Eve as they wait and see how the systems will hold up, and what sort of abandonment figures they’ll see as puzzled customers are presented with confusing authentication screens. We can probably expect a flood of concerned calls about phishing which are actually Strong Customer Authentication requests.

NHS test and trace text messaging scams target vulnerable people

person using smartphone

Here at Consult Hyperion we tend to go on about the lack of a joined up thinking around government policy on digital identity and source authentication but mostly it doesn’t really affect us personally. I mean, we get this stuff, we can spot a scam a mile off. But sometimes it does get a bit close to home…

I discovered today that my frail but still mentally competent parents have been quarantining for the past week, and a bit, because they received an NHS Test and Trace text warning that they’d been in the proximity to someone diagnosed with COVID-19. As they’re in the very high risk category, you can imagine how worried they were. But here’s the thing – they never give their mobile number to anyone and they wouldn’t know how to download an app even if I spent a year explaining it to them. It was a scam – in fact the text deleted itself, but almost certainly it will have contained “more information” link, which would have downloaded malware onto their phone.

Travel Broke and Broken

The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has been ruthlessly exposing fragile business models and weak balance sheets across a whole range of industries but perhaps never more so than in the travel business. In fairness, no one could have anticipated a global, government dictated total shutdown and no business models could ever be flexible enough to support such an improbable scenario. Still, it’s become clear that many travel industry companies are effectively broke and that the payments model they rely on is broken. Going forward we need a better and more sustainable approach to payments in the industry.

Most travel industry payments rely on payments cards so it’s worth starting by recapping on how most card payment models work. When a cardholder makes a payment to a merchant – either in store or, increasingly, on-line, this is routed to the merchant’s card acquirer. The acquirer has a direct relationship with the merchant in the same way that a card issuer has a direct relationship with cardholders and the acquirer will route the payment request to the relevant issuer – usually by sending the request to a payment scheme who uses the card number to identify the correct issuer. If the issuer approves the transaction then the response is routed back through the same path and the purchase completed. This is no different from any other card payment, although there are hidden complexities where the merchant is an online travel agent sourcing flights, hotels, etc from multiple underlying vendors. However, that’s a detail.

Back to the future – QR codes are coming

QR codes are coming

Who’d have thought that the humble barcode – reimagined in 3D – would have posed a genuine threat to the global behemoths that are the international card payments schemes?  And, of all the times, why now? Well, as always, there’s no single answer. We’re seeing multiple trends coalescing to drive uptake of QR code initiated payments, but the announcement by PayPal that they’re rolling their solution out to all CVS stores is perhaps a critical moment:

PayPal and InComm on Thursday (July 30) unveiled a QR code payment system that will enable touchless checkouts by PayPal and Venmo users with their mobile phones at brick-and-mortar stores.

Paypal teams up with CVS to offer touch-free payments

It’s not so much that it makes QR codes mainstream, it’s more that it validates the point that they’re a perfectly viable way of making in-store payments, and then tying it to a e-comm type payment method: now that’s replicable. Four things are coming together to drive the adoption of QR codes:

  1. Smartphones: The widespread availability of smartphones makes them a perfect solution for retail payments. If everyone has one then creating a pervasive alternative to card payments is possible.
  2. Connectivity: In fact it’s not absolutely necessary to always have mobile data connectivity to allow QR code based payments, but I helps managing the risk. And even where mobile data isn’t available a lot of mainstream retail chains are providing in store WiFi or Bluetooth capability.
  3. COVID-19: Suddenly contact-free payments are the way to go – and QR Code initiated payments are a guaranteed way of ensuring that payments can be made without touching merchant equipment.
  4. Integrated retail experiences – “omnichannel”: Merchants with a good omnichannel experience are having a better crisis because the ability to order and pay on one channel and fulfil on another is critical. Increasingly merchant POS estates have API based access to backend systems which can be used to access QR code authorisation or approval channels.

The pay-by-app model, we’ve been touting for years is actually, finally, coming to fruition. Lots of individual merchants – and probably every major supermarket chain in the world – has its own app that allows QR code based payments. Those apps allow a range of other functions to be integrated, including scanning, checkout, automated loyalty redemption and real-time customer data analytics.  The ability to make the customer relationship sticky is attractive and with the average supermarket basket value increasing as customers shop bigger and less often ensuring that you’re the retail destination of choice is critical.

Behind this, however, is another change – and one that the PayPal deal with CVS lays bare. There is nothing that forces one of these QR code initiated payment apps to use payment cards as the means of transaction. Sure, they’ll be there as a backup but any API-based payment solution – and there are hundreds, if not thousands – can be integrated. As direct to account payment APIs, such as the PSD2 payment initiation API that’s mandated in Europe, become more widespread, it will be possible to go direct to the payment account in order to authorise payments.

This trend has other, major implications for other aspects of payments such as settlement and refunds but, as we can see from our own clients, a lot of thought and effort is going into resolving those issues. For retailers who can see lower cost of payments, reduced fraud, significant reductions in the cost of handling chargebacks and faster settlement this is a win-win-win-win situation.

As you might surmise, here at Consult Hyperion, we are heavily involved in all aspects of this change. From helping to develop and secure the apps, to advising on the business and governance models, through to designing and developing the solutions, and providing regulatory advice. We’re leaders in the field. If you’re interested come back to the future with us, QR codes are coming…

No Delay to SCA

Since the FCA announced a further 6 month delay in the UK’s deadline for Strong Customer Authentication there’s been a general expectation that the EBA would follow suit and relax the date for the EEA. However, it now appears that won’t happen – the 31st December 2020 remains the key date and there won’t be any further relaxation in the rules.

This hasn’t been officially announced but appears to have been the gist of a letter by the European Commission’s Executive Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis which makes clear that there’s no consideration in place for a delay and that, in the Commission’s view, the Coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent rise in e-commerce makes it more urgent to implement rather than less. It looks like the Commission is not for turning and with only a little over six months left to be prepared any merchant or payment service provider than hasn’t been planning for this is likely to be in full panic mode.

At one level it’s hard to disagree with the Commission’s position – the deadline has been shifted already from last September in order to accommodate the industry’s inability to implement in time. Although, in fairness, it ought to be noted that original requirements require a degree in semiotics to fully understand and clarifications have been fitful and, on occasion, too late. However, there’s a degree of real-world pragmatism missing from the decision – the last thing the European economy needs right now is an e-commerce cliff edge right in the middle of the busiest shopping period of the year.

The divergence between the UK and Europe also starts to raise some interesting questions. PSD2 applies to countries within the EEA and not to transactions starting or finishing outside – and as of January 1st 2021 the UK will be fully outside. PSD2 will apply within the EEA ex-UK and within the UK ex-Europe but, barring some kind of passporting agreement, not between them. One option for desperate European e-tailers may be to shift operations to the UK where the SCA deadline is a further 9 months away. Of course, the same applies in reverse: logically there ought to be a compromise, but those seem thin on the ground.

Overall, then, the message to all organisations involved in electronic payments is to assume that SCA will be  enforced from January 1st next year and any firm that can’t support it should expect to see transactions declined. Merchants and PSPs may choose or may not be able to handle SCA but issuers will be ready and won’t want to be upsetting the regulators. For any companies out there that don’t know what to do come and talk to us, we can help guide you through the process – first by helping ensure you’re compliant and then by addressing the additional friction that SCA will introduce.

It isn’t too late to do something about SCA but it does very much look like we are at the eleventh hour.

GDPR: Consequences, Fines and Responses

The UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has finally done what it’s been threatening to for a while and levied enormous fines on British Airways’ parent International Consolidated Airlines (£183 million) and Marriott Hotels (£99 million).  While subject to appeal, these are the first signs of how the ICO now has real teeth and is prepared to use them. The question is, what lessons can we learn from this?

Well, firstly, we can observe that card payments aren’t optimised for the internet.  The BA breach looks like it was at entry point – i.e. it wasn’t that the data was breached while stored in a database but that someone managed to get hacked software to intercept payments in flight and capture the details. The point here, of course, is that the paradigm of giving your card details to the merchant so they can pass them to your issuer originated in the 20th century when we didn’t have a choice. Now, given that we have this internet thing it makes more sense to contact our issuer directly and tell them to pay the merchant. Realistically, this may be the only way we can be sure merchants won’t lose our card details – don’t give them to them.

This points to push payments a la PSD2 APIs. But given that these won’t be pervasive for a while then the next best option is to tokenise cards to either limit their use to a single merchant or even a single transaction. Both of these are areas we’re seeing lots of interest in, and ought to be high on the agenda of heads of IT security and payments everywhere.

Secondly, we can note that static credentials are a sitting target. Seeing email addresses and passwords breached opens up companies to all sorts of horrible consequential damages under GDPR – let’s face it, most people reuse the same combinations across multiple sites so a breach on one site can lead to exposure on another. Any company relying on static credentials should basically assume they’re going to get some level of breach.  

Fixing this requires two factor authentication and we have a ready-made, state-of-the-art, solution here in the EU. PSD2 SCA is about as strong an approach as you could ask for and we have banks and authentication providers drowning in relevant technology. There simply is no excuse for a company using static credentials if they get breached.  We’ve been working closely with providers to look at how to take these solutions into the wider authentication market, because there’s been a certain inevitability about the way a lot of companies have dealt with their data breach protection.

Finally, note that the point that BA have made – that they haven’t seen any impact due to their breach – needs to be quantified: “yet”. Hackers tend to sit on breach data for 18 months before using it, waiting for the identity protection schemes that are often engaged post these events to expire. GDPR allows affected companies and individuals to sue – up until now the costs of a data breach have been borne by banks having to deal with fraud and issue new cards and consumers having to sort out identity protection. The ICO fines may yet be just the be tip of a very expensive iceberg as GDPR ensures that the costs more appropriately allocated to the offending parties.

SCA: the end of merchant liability, and other authentication factors

The EBA’s recent Opinion on the elements of strong customer authentication under PSD2 was, apart from moving the goalposts on when SCA will be enforced, full of interesting information about what constitutes a valid SCA element. It closes some doors, opens others and ends any notion that merchants can take liability and not do SCA themselves.

Taking the final point first, there’s been a view that Article 74(2) of PSD2 permits merchants to carry on without implementing SCA as long as they take liability. We at Consult Hyperion have long argued that that is an optimistic and overly legalistic reading of the regulations and this has now been confirmed. The EBA states:


In addition, even if there were a liability shift to the payee or the payee’s PSP for failing to accept SCA, as articulated in Article74(2) of PSD2, this could not be considered an alleviation of PSPs’ obligation to apply SCA in accordance with and as specified in Article 97 of PSD2.

Basically, Article 97 takes precedence – PSPs (aka Issuers) must apply SCA so if the merchant chooses not to then rather than end up with a payment for which they’re liable they’ll end up with no payment at all. Which, you’d imagine, would rather miss the point of being a merchant.

Beyond this point the Opinion has lots of interest to say about inherence, possession and knowledge elements.

On inherence two points stand out. Firstly the Opinion unambiguously states that behavioural biometrics can be a valid factor: this opens up a world of possible low friction SCA, and we expect to see lots of innovation in this area. Secondly it states that 3DS-2 does not support inherence as none of the data points being gathered relate to biological or behavioural biometrics but – and we view this as important – 3DS-2 is a valid means of supporting SCA.

This is critical because the dynamic linking process behind 3DS-2 is not straightforward and there have been differences of opinion over whether this is compliant. Given that 3DS-2 appears to be the only game in town for CNP transactions having a statement that it’s OK is mighty important.

On possession, the EBA clarifies that OTP SMS is valid and also that mobile app based approaches can be – but only if the app is linked to the device. We’ve been arguing that this is obviously the case for a while, so it’s good to see this confirmed: although there are going to be a few app developers out there that need to revise their approaches pdq (we can help, of course!).

Also on possession the EBA has stated something that really should have been obvious to anyone taking more than a moderate interest in the topic – printed card details such as PAN and CVV or user ids and email addresses are not valid possession or knowledge elements. As a number of prominent industry players have been taking the opposite approach this could lead to some interesting developments in the coming weeks, particularly as the Opinion states that if the CVV is not printed on the card and is instead sent on a separate channel, then it is a valid knowledge element.

Overall, the analysis and discussion in the Opinion on valid SCA elements is welcome, if a trifle tardy. To be fair to the EBA, we don’t see anything in their analysis that a proper reading of the RTS wouldn’t have produced. However, it’s been clear for some time that many industry players have been making a highly liberal interpretation of the requirements usually based on a legal opinion. But PSD2 and the RTS are about principles, not rules: if you need advice on this you need to talk to the people who understand this stuff. Which, by the way, is us, not law firms.


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