Selfie banking: A snapshot of the future

By Alan Cooper Time of article published May 20, 2018

Share this article:

We’ve all had them - those moments when it dawns on you in a flash of insight that you’re living in the future.

Using an ATM for the first time and making my first cellular phone call are two that stand out for me.

But, as someone fortunate enough to write about gadgets and technology, it seems I’m experiencing these moments more often than ever these days.

One of those occasions was on Wednesday when FNB launched a slew of innovations.

The headline act, opening an account by snapping a selfie, could have been culled from an episode of satirical science fiction series Black Mirror. But, no, it’s real and banking will never be the same again.

Like most good examples of advanced tech, it’s deceptively simple to use. All you have to do is fire up the app, answer a few questions, snap that selfie and within minutes you’ve got an account or, in banking jargon, you’re “onboarded”.

But behind the digital curtains, a fantastically complex process is under way, with advanced algorithms pulling in data from numerous sources, including the Department of Home Affairs, to verify your identity and financial status, and comparing this to the information you’ve provided, your location via the phone’s GPS and a whole lot of other data points the bank’s staying mum about.

Cynics might dismiss this as gimmick designed to garner publicity and there’s no doubt FNB is a master at marketing itself.

However, this only works over the long term if there’s some substance behind the products being punted, and even the most sceptical will find it hard to dispute FNB’s track record of banking sector innovation, from its ground-breaking app to more recent fin-tech offerings like its cellphone-based eWallets.

Selfie onboarding was just one of the innovations announced this week.

Another that appeals to me - as someone who does a lot of my work out of coffee shops using third-party QR code-based apps like Zapper and Masterpass to pay for my caffeine boost - is that FNB will soon allow its customers to pay any of these through its own app, eliminating the need to juggle a host of payment apps.

The bank is already ahead of the game when it comes to the “wearables” trend, with its app available on both Apple and Android watches.

Now it plans to expand its reach to fitness trackers from the likes of Garmin and Fitbit, allowing users of these devices to pay for items simply by tapping them at compatible point-of-sale machines as you would with a tap-and-pay bank card.

Then there’s nav>> Money, which will help customers stay on top of their financial health by tracking their spending and available funds, as well as monitoring their credit status.

For the latter, FNB assess various data, including internal information and credit bureau information, to rate a customer’s credit fitness across seven indicators.

There were several more announcements at Wednesday’s event but I won’t go into them now as you are sure to be hearing plenty in the coming weeks as FNB rolls out its advertising campaign.

The broader takeaway is the direction in which FNB is moving and what it means for us as bank customers.

Chief executive Jacques Celliers summarised it: “Today marks a significant milestone in our 180-year history as we move beyond being a digital innovator to a broader contextual platform disruptor.

“It is through this contextually helpful platform that we can offer holistic financial solutions and become a trusted partner to the broader society.”

He said a lot more, but the key word is “platform”. In announcing FNB’s intention to become a platform, like Facebook and Uber, Celliers made it clear he wants his company to do a lot more than offer bank accounts and credit cards.

By knowing more about you than probably any other organisation, the bank gets to tap into a near-bottomless well of opportunity.

When you value your house using FNB’s service, the bank knows you might be interested in selling it and buying another and can offer you some attractive services and home loan packages.


When you search for flights and accommodation using eBucks Travel’s expanded service, FNB gets to offer you discounted options from its hand-picked travel partners.


FNB calls this “contextually helpful”. The more cynically minded may call it creepy.

Celliers stressed that the bank would not abuse its customers’ trust by crossing the line from helpful to spammy and intrusive but with the aforementioned Facebook and Uber hardly shining examples in this regard, you could be forgiven for remaining sceptical.

I, for one, trust Celliers a lot more than his social media counterpart, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg. And before you call me naïve, it’s not because I think he is a paragon of virtue, although I am sure he is an honourable man.

No, I trust him because, unlike Facebook, FNB is bound by a battery of local and international banking and privacy protection regulations.

When Zuck allowed my personal data to be sold off to Russian election riggers, the worst he had to endure was a laughably ill-informed and ineffectual bout of questioning from US politicians. If FNB did the same, Celliers would face jail time or a hefty fine at the least.

I’m not an FNB customer but I’m still hugely excited by these innovations.

Other banks, my own included, are sure to follow suit, making for a more user-friendly banking experience.

The American-Canadian author William Gibson famously said: “The future is already here - it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

Opening an account using a selfie, gimmick or not, is another step towards distributing that future more evenly to all of us.

* Follow Cooper on Twitter @alanqcooper

Share this article: