Billions of people around the world are excluded from conventional banking systems. One UK-based fintech startup believes it has come up with a solution - a new, alternative kind of financial infrastructure that’s available to anyone who owns a smartphone with an in-built camera - that connects them to the global economy and all the opportunities that it offers.
There are an estimated 2.5 billion people in the world who have no or only limited access to formal banking systems, otherwise known as the "unbanked". The majority of these people are in Africa, Asia and South America, and often don’t have either the necessary identification or the minimal funds needed to open an account. Others simply live too far from local financial institutions.
These unbanked individuals don't have huge sums of money, but they too could profit from practical financial services like investments, cashless payments, savings accounts and microcredit schemes, and added together (they constitute just under half of the entire world's population, after all!) they have considerable economic heft.
An affordable Android phone and a simple app
Humaniq has developed a solution: a platform that offers users access to an alternative financial system based on its own cryptocurrency, called the HMQ. After downloading an app, rather than requiring physical signatures and conventional government-issued IDs, Humaniq identifies users using biometric, voice and location technologies instead - meaning they can sign up for the service equipped only with their own face, a mobile phone and access to the internet. These unique and secure identities are then verified and stored on Humaniq’s servers, and are used for sending and receiving money in the form of Humaniq’s own cryptocurrency, via the use of Ethereum smart contracts.
These are peer-to-peer direct money transfers, where again, no middleman is involved, and there are zero fees. The app acts as a kind of “wallet” where the value is stored, and there’s an instant messaging service too, where users can ask questions. The Humaniq app is designed as simply as possible - with animal symbol pins and a clear layout - and the currency only works with amounts in whole numbers. And it’s specifically designed to work well on low-end smartphones, accessible models that cost around 15-20 USD.
In the future, Humaniq hopes to move on to services such as peer-to-peer loans, insurances and cashless wage payments. These advanced features may be developed by third parties, possibly new startups. The system’s open API meaning other startups and businesses are able to build services using its core technology, merging with Humaniq's network to reach this as yet unreached audience and giving room for innovations that the founders of Humaniq hadn't originally thought of.
The app itself is available globally, with the wallet feature currently open for 20 different countries in the African continent. The app has has been downloaded 500,000 times and 6 million messages have been exchanged with the chat bot and the app’s users.
Starting a currency and watching it grow
At the start of the currency's life, coins first had to be created that have a value for the user.. The Initial Coin Offering (ICO) ran until the 27th of April 2017, where it was possible to exchange Ether, Bitcoin and US Dollar into the new currency. Nearly 12,000 transactions raised over five million USD. Now the currency is being traded on various different cryptocurrency exchanges.
In order to help grow the network of people using Humaniq, new users are rewarded with a small amount of Humaniq coins (HMQ), and recommending the service to others can also bag you a bonus. That means that every new user creates new coins, although individual users can only receive a limited number of coins as a reward. These amounts cause the absolute number of HMQ to grow, although the sum of all possible coins is defined as five times the amount of coins that were created during the ICO. After that no new coins are emitted within the system.
We take Humaniq for a test run
When we took a closer look at Humaniq, it looked like they had really understood the needs of their target audience, and looked pretty promising. One of the biggest technical challenges is bound to be ensuring that the biometric identification system is completely secure. The prototype of the app – although it still basically not operable – looks well designed. It will be interesting to see how easily the 2.5 billion people that the service has been designed for will find it to get connected to the network. Those who are now participating in the currency system since the ICO probably already have access to official financial services and have a certain amount of capital. How will the two groups now do business with each other?
But there's one aspect of Humaniq which makes me have some reservations though. I logged myself into the personal dashboard, a tool that was used to carry out the ICO and that can still be accessed online. Even when calling up the site over HTTPS, the form used to create an account is sent over non-secure protocol - basically, you send your passwort for your Humaniq account through the internet in plain text. And in this portal, various different tracking scripts are loaded, including for example, roistat.com, yandex.ru and google-analytics.com.
Tracking isn't always a bad thing. But when you're in a space that enables financial transactions, you should be cautious and it should be clear what you're actually doing. That doesn't necessarily mean that the ICO transactions weren't secure. But it doesn't make a good impression when a bank-like company seems not to fulfil even the most basic security requirements. Hopefully when the system is developed further, it's an aspect that will gain more attention.
The transaction area also has an online chat function, which was helpful when it came to general questions. But when I voiced my concern about the safety issue, no answer came for nearly 25 minutes. When I posed the question again, I was asked to give them my email address. My chat partner, Lee, would get back to me.
This article is a translation by Marisa Pettit of the original article that appeared on RESET's German-language site. It was updated in November 2018 to include more information about the Humaniq app and the current status of the project.