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November 2022


3 - 4 Minutes

Three surprising facts about the humble bank card

In The Secret Genius of Modern Life, which first aired on BBC2 in the UK, mathematician and presenter Professor Hannah Fry tells the untold stories of the science and technology behind modern day inventions like food delivery apps, electric cars and the humble bank card.

In the first episode, Professor Fry and the crew were given exclusive access to the data centre where all European Visa transactions are processed, as well as explaining how a piece of ancient jewellery led to Chip & PIN, how a husband and wife ironing in the 1960s revolutionised how data is stored on our cards, and how Russian spies are partly to thank for contactless payments.

Here are the three most surprising facts about the humble bank card from the episode:

1. The ironing board revolutionised the bank card

The magnetic stripe has graced bank cards since the 1960s, replacing the carbon copy sales slip process that was slow and prone to error. Developed by IBM engineer Forrest Parry, who had long struggled with a way to attach the strip to the card, until he was inspired by his wife to iron the two together. This was the first method that allowed computer processing of the unique binary code embedded in each card to secure personal transactions.

In its European data centre, Visa’s Global Head of Technology, Rajat Taneja took the crew through the massive scale and unique architecture of the Visa technology that processes and protects that data, facilitating on average more than 700 million transactions daily. Each transaction involves multiple steps, all of which happen in the literal blink of an eye – just under 300 milliseconds.

When you tap to buy a coffee, Rajat explains: “We have to verify the credential of the card, make sure there’s no fraud going on, make sure you have funds in your account, then we make an authorisation decision, send it back to the merchant’s bank who then sends it to the merchant.”

Visa has invested $9 billion in technology over the last five years alone to keep our network running at pace and ensure it is evolving and harnessing the most cutting-edge innovations. We frequently pressure test the network and its systems to make sure they operate at ‘five nines’ or 99.999 per cent of the time, which equates to less than one second of downtime per day.

In this way, Visa's resilience and reliability are a foundation for European economies and have been essential in helping people and businesses thrive.

2. The original bank card chip was a fashion statement

As technology advances, so too do the fraudsters. While the magnetic stripe had facilitated simple digital payments to spread across the world the process lacked the security alone to protect the data if a card is lost or stolen.

That’s where Roland Moreno’s idea, to use a signet ring with microchip attached as a unique and personal identifier, led to the modern chip and pin embedded in bank cards today.

And as eCommerce boomed, CVV (or Card Verification Value) rounded out this series of digital signatures to make sure card numbers were less susceptible for fraud.

Visa Europe’s Head of Risk, Natalie Kelly says the fight against fraud is constant: “We have an entire risk operations centre looking at streams and streams of data every day for anomalies, and anytime there’s a spike, we go and investigate.” Globally Visa’s artificial intelligence systems prevent an estimated $25 billion in annual fraud1.

Natalie goes on to explain enumeration attacks, where fraudsters use artificial intelligence to randomly generate card number, expiry date and CVV combinations until they hit on an active card.

“It’s like if you had a locker with a three-digit code,” Natalie says, “If you roll those numbers 1,000 ways you’ll eventually get the combination right. An enumeration attack is the same but with a bot which is testing those combinations at super-fast speeds. Once they get a hit, they’ll go buy as many high-value items they can quickly convert to cash on the black market. It’s basically our AI against their AI.”

The reliability of Visa’s network comes into play here too. While no system is infallible, Visa’s scheme enables the victims of fraud to get their money back through their bank2.

3. Your face soon could soon replace your bank card

Visiting the Visa innovation centre, Professor Fry proposes “Bank cards have gone from basic bits of plastic to sophisticated minicomputers carried in our pockets, but the next big breakthrough might mean we don’t need bank cards at all. The future of payments is biometric.”

As technology has advanced, card payments have become easier, more efficient and secure. We can now make contactless payments easily through a phone or watch. And payments can be embedded in cars, household appliances or an app.

Tokenisation has facilitated this development. Not just an enabler of new payment methods, it also delivered a knockout punch to fraud. Pioneered by Visa, tokenisation is designed to conceal and devalue sensitive information, making digital payments more secure and helping people and businesses stay one step ahead of the fraudsters.

It works by replacing a 16-digit card number with a digital token that only Visa can unlock. So, when customers make a card payment at checkout, their underlying account details are obscured, safeguarding them against fraud. While a stolen card number can be used almost anywhere, a stolen token is useless – like having the wrong key for the lock.

Tokens also facilitate biometrics as the key to approve a payment. Visa Europe CEO, Charlotte Hogg, says: “If you move to a world where you increasingly use biometrics – and that can be face, it can be your voice, it can be your thumbprint...it can be unique in a number of different ways. Once you move to that world, you can begin to take out the steps that we probably don’t realise are quite clunky today.”

From the first BankAmericard – which would eventually become Visa – back in 1958, through to tokenised biometric payments used today, the ways we can pay or be paid has developed at a rapid pace, helping people, businesses and governments to keep cities and economies moving. As Professor Fry says, while technology moves incredibly fast and there are more brilliant ideas to come:

“No one in their right minds would describe [a bank card] as high tech, and yet, hiding within it is nothing less than a marvel of human ingenuity.”

Watch The Secret Genius of Modern Life

In the UK and Ireland
On BBC iPlayer

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All brand names, logos and/or trademarks are the property of their respective owners, are used for identification purposes only, and do not necessarily imply product endorsement or affiliation with Visa.
Case studies, statistics, research and recommendations are provided “AS IS” and intended for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon for operational, marketing, legal, technical, tax, financial or other advice. Visa Inc. does not make any warranty or representation as to the completeness or accuracy of the Information within this document, nor assume any liability or responsibility that may result from reliance on such Information. The Information contained herein is not intended as legal advice, and readers are encouraged to seek the advice of a competent legal professional where such advice is required.

1 https://usa.visa.com/about-visa/newsroom/press-releases.releaseId.16421.html
2 Replacement funds are provided on a provisional basis and may be withheld, delayed, limited, or rescinded due to gross negligence or fraud, delay in reporting unauthorised use, investigation and verification of claim, or account standing and history. Visa's Zero Liability policy does not apply to certain commercial card and anonymous prepaid card transactions or transactions not processed by Visa. Cardholders must use care in protecting their card and notify their issuing financial institution immediately of any unauthorized use. Contact your issuer for more detail.

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