Making UPI Safer

I recently came across NPCI PayAuth Challenge, seeking proposals to improve UPI authentication process to enhance user experience and improved security. I thought this is a good reason to write a new blogpost. I have been a big advocate of risk based authentication and believe that it clearly has the potential significantly improve the authentication process without compromising the security. In fact there is a possibility of even improving security by removing blanket authentication protocol for all transactions.

UPI as a transaction method requires you to register your mobile device as a trusted device after authentication from your bank before you are allowed to transact. Smartphones are capable of capturing a lot of data points at the background. These data points combined with user information and past behaviour data available with your PSP (and/or Bank) can be used to arrive at indicators/score to assess the risk associated with any particular transaction. Based on the risk scope UPI app can trigger authentication protocol. Low risk transactions can be processed without additional authentication while, moderate risk transactions can be approved with simple authentication and high risk transactions can ask for stricter authentication protocols (could be an IVR based referral even if the risk is high).

The idea behind this thought is that your PSP has assess to more behavioral data than your merchant or bank; this behavioral data if used wisely can be an effective tool to offer a seamless transaction authentication experience without compromising on security. PSPs can create a user profile around behavioral data based on things like, where, when, what, how etc. of a transactions. Any deviation from this profile can be triggered for additional authentication.

Nowadays we even have technologies available to create a behavioral biometric profile of a user based on how he normally interacts with his device. This behavioral biometric can be used a first level of authentication (your mobile device is already mapped, which serves as one level of authentication anyway in every transaction) to process the transaction without any Password or PIN. In case of enhanced risk, Password/PIN can be triggered to ensure triple factor of authentication in this case.

1. What you have? your mobile device.

2. Who you are? your behavioral biometric.

3. What you know? Password/PIN

One warning though, do not ever use a SMS OTP based authentication for transaction performed from a mobile device. An OTP is falsely attributed as “What you know?” factor, while it is actually a repeat of “What you have?” An SMS OTP is validating the possession of the mobile device, which is redundant if transaction is performed from pre-verified and tagged mobile device.

Let me illustrate with few examples.

1. Let’s assume a particular customer pays electricity bill to same electricity company every month, in the range of 2000-5000 Rs. How the step-up authentication would work in following scenario?

a. Customer trying to pay bill of 4000 Rs to same electricity company. – Transaction can be approved without additional PIN

b. Customer trying to pay bill of 6000 Rs to same electricity company. – Customer will have to authenticate using PIN

c. Customer trying to pay bill of 3000 Rs to different electricity company. – Transaction will require PIN

2. A customer living in Mumbai regularly transacts at shops in his region with transaction amount ranging between 50 Rs to 5000 Rs depending on merchant category.

a. A transaction with-in the location range on a merchant category-amount combination with-in typical behavior range will be approved without PIN

b. Transactions outside the location range or a different merchant category or value higher than typical behavior range will require PIN.

With machine learning we can create self learning algorithms to cater to more complex scenarios and let the algorithm decide when to step-up the authentication. With more usage, the algorithms will keep on improving making it more effective with time.

PS: I know some start-ups who are working on behavioral biometric and will be happy to do a POC.

PS 2: Happy to brainstorm with anyone whoever is interested, only condition is one will have to adjust to my availability

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