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Published March 3rd 2016

Industry Opinion: Is Google Hands Free a Step Back to Less Secure Times?

Today Google announced its new Hands Free payment system. But is it more of a step back than forward, asks Chris Owen

Google has announced today that it is to trial ‘Hands Free’, a scheme whereby payment can be made through a user’s mobile without it having to leave their pocket.

Whatever you might think about the seemingly endless quest to get through the day with as little effort as possible, (Google’s trial aims to take the hassle out of having to remove items from pockets… oh the indignity), there’s something in the description which makes the concept sound more retrograde than evolutionary.

How Google Hands Free works

In a nutshell, the app works through location services on the device notifying you’re near participating stores.

On paying, you simply tell the cashier “I’ll pay with Google” and the cashier then compares your smiling face to a profile picture you added when establishing your Hands Free profile.


This is where the backward step rears its head.

Prior to moving into PR I was lucky enough to run record shops for a while, (a career move instigated with my parents expectation of ‘a proper job’ – apparently being surly, hungover, judgemental and arguing about which Van Morrison album is the best – it’s Astral Weeks by the way – didn’t count).

The shops took cards, and as with all things pre-chip and PIN, authorization was handled by signature verification.

Close up image of credit card swipe machine

This is a fundamentally flawed process – not only can signatures be faked, but the over-riding factor in tackling fraud lay in the weakest part of the chain, namely the person behind the counter.

A step backward, rather than forward?

People aren’t machines. We’re not simply functional and devoid of emotion.

As such, those at the coal front of customer service rarely challenged signatures which didn’t 100% match – a cursory flick of the card to glance at the signature was all that was usually required to show willing, but whether they matched was largely irrelevant.

Who likes confrontation after all?

Try to remember when you were last challenged or asked for more proof of ID when using your card and signing.

I can’t remember being challenged, ever. In fact, the over-riding memory I do have is of a customer who had written in bold caps along the signature strip, “PLEASE ASK FOR PASSPORT” – turns out he’d been writing false signatures to test which shops checked and lost so much faith in it he walked around with his passport on him and used this; although this still wasn’t always demanded.


This move from Google seems to revert back to such wishy-washy security days.

It puts the verification back into the hands of the customer service line by asking them to compare profile pics to expectant faces.

And all because humans need to evolve to do everything from their pocket instead of the nominal movement of removing a wallet/mobile and using this to pay. 

Technological advancement is all well and good, but there is a need to make sure that security isn’t de-prioritised over ease of use in the process, and that in making something easier doesn’t inadvertently make us take a step back from security flaws we’d long since left behind.

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Crimson Hexagon has merged with Brandwatch. You’re in the right place!

From May 8th, all Crimson Hexagon products are now on the Brandwatch website. You’ll find them under ‘Products’ in the navigation. If you’re an existing customer and you want to know more, your account manager will be happy to help.