Would you implant a tiny debit card chip in your hand? Forget fingerprint or facial recognition… ‘biometric’ payment is being touted as the future
On networking website LinkedIn, entrepreneur Wojtek Paprota calls himself a ‘transhumanism believer’.
He is referring to a radical, but growing, movement that wants humans to use technology to evolve beyond their physical limitations.
The British-Polish businessman is founder of Walletmor — which claims to be the first company in the world to sell contactless bank-card chips that can be implanted into humans.
Handouts: London-based Walletmor claims to be the first company in the world to sell contactless bank-card chips that can be implanted into humans
The procedure is simple, if bloody, and leaves customers with a small stitch below the wrist.
Once the chip is in, users no longer have to bother with debit or credit cards. To make a purchase they can wave their hand over a contactless reader. It might sound like a dystopian fantasy, but Walletmor is evidence of how quickly the payment industry is progressing.
From chip implants to facial recognition software on your mobile, this new technology is aiming to consign cash and bank cards to the history books.
But is the rapidly growing sector dangerously out of its depth? Certainly Walletmor appears to be.
Today Money Mail can reveal the firm — which has featured on both the BBC and Forbes — has been plunged into controversy after it emerged it had misled customers.
Mr Paprota had been repurposing chips from a third-party supplier, MuchBetter, which is associated with Mastercard.
Once they were alerted to Walletmor’s actions, both companies pulled the plug — citing ‘health and safety’ concerns.
Overnight customers in the UK had their accounts shut down.
The result? Some have been left with totally redundant chips under their skin. Their only option at present is to have them removed — though Walletmor insists it is looking at ways to reprogram already-implanted chips for future use.
A microchip was first inserted into a human in 1998. Professor Kevin Warwick — who is known as Captain Cyborg — had the procedure done to link his nervous system to a computer as part of an experiment.
But otherwise there was little appetite for commercially available chips — until Walletmor stepped in and began selling them as an alternative to bank cards.
The device is around the size of a grain of rice and costs €200 (£169).
Walletmor could not conduct implantations, instead referring customers to piercing specialists.
The chip was linked to a smartphone app run by MuchBetter, where customers could deposit funds. In April, Walletmor bragged on social media that it had been featured in more than 450 articles worldwide.
‘The implant can be used to pay for a drink on the beach in Rio, a coffee in New York, a haircut in Paris — or at your local grocery store,’ Mr Paprota told the BBC earlier this year.
From chip implants to facial recognition software on your mobile, new technology is aiming to consign cash and bank cards to the history books
But on a Facebook group dedicated to Walletmor’s 434 ‘ambassadors’, customers regularly posted videos of card machines struggling to read their chips.
Gary Prince, chief strategy officer of software company SimplyPayMe, says: ‘It’s a fascinating concept but for something like this to work, people have to want to use it.
‘What is the benefit of paying on your hand? If it could also be loaded with identification documents, that would be a different story. But that would also open up a bigger debate around privacy.’
Interest in ‘biometric’ payment solutions — which use physical characteristics to identify a customer and authorise a transaction — has been growing steadily.
Well-known examples include fingerprint and facial-recognition technology, which is used among banks, tech giants and even at airports to authenticate passports.
In the late 1990s, Nationwide piloted an ATM that could scan eyeballs to confirm identity and allow customers to withdraw money — though it never went further than the initial trial.
In 2016 Apple Pay introduced ‘selfie pay’ which let customers authorise transactions by taking a photograph of their face.
The following year Santander became the first bank in the UK to bring in voice-recognition technology. And in 2019, Barclays rolled out ‘finger vein scanners’ which can identify customers by their fingertips using infra-red technology.
The hope is that these types of technology could stamp out fraud as criminals are unable to replicate these unique characteristics.
Yet card payments are still by far the most popular payment mode, with 1.7 billion debit and credit card transactions recorded in February this year, according to UK Finance.
As for Walletmor, it now finds itself in a sticky mess.
Card payments are still by far the most popular payment mode, with 1.7 billion debit and credit card transactions recorded in February this year
The company says only two customers in the UK had chips implanted. Dozens more had paid but not yet inserted them.
Across the world, hundreds more have had chips implanted. But they are not facing the same issues because the company uses a different account provider, iCard.
Dmitriy Kondratiev, a lawyer who specialises in the ethics of body modification, says: ‘Walletmor’s legal department did an outstanding job protecting themselves in their terms and conditions.
The company is neither responsible for any complications associated with installation nor responsible for correct work of banking.’
Walletmor points out that it does not technically offer a financial service, meaning it is not beholden to regulators such as the Financial Conduct Authority.
Mr Paprota tells Money Mail: ‘We are asking our users for patience as soon the chips can work flawlessly also on the British Isles. Walletmor is a transparent, honest and professional company. We openly promote our ideas of transhumanism. We do not hide anything and operate in accordance with the law.’
The fallout has left Walletmor devotees divided. Many of its ‘ambassadors’ treat the tech as though it were a religion. One wrote on its Facebook page: ‘I trust Walletmor to get this resolved. Every new technology faces problems along the way.’
Others are less forgiving. ‘What has emerged is a failure to perform due diligence,’ writes one.
‘Walletmor did the tour of the media and confidently claimed they were making implants mainstream. The reality was very different from that.’
It is tempting to dismiss those so eager to jump on board.
However, some 51 per cent of individuals across Europe and the UK would consider implanting a chip in their hand, according to a 2021 survey by payment solution service Marqeta.
But when Money Mail approached MuchBetter and Mastercard for statements on their relationship with Walletmor, their responses were telling.
A Mastercard spokesman says: ‘This is not a product we are involved with or endorse. This is an area that requires considerable review to ensure the safety of the transaction and the individual.
‘We only allow transactions on our network with devices that meet our certification and testing requirements. Human chip implants do not meet these requirements.’ A MuchBetter spokesman adds: ‘We do not have a relationship with Walletmor, commercially or otherwise implied. Walletmor is in breach of MuchBetter trademark.’
Firms are clear: without efficient regulation, payment implants will never be embraced beyond the small cult of ‘transhumanism believers’.