That Dinner You Charged on Your iCache at Hamersley’s: $360. Not Having to Worry About Stolen Credit Cards: Priceless.
If you live inside a Norman Rockwell painting or a Frank Capra movie, then perhaps everyone you interact with knows you by sight and can vouch for your identity. But in the real world, we tote around all sorts of digitally encoded data to verify that we’re entitled to carry out our daily business: the magstripes on our credit cards, the bar codes on movie and sports tickets, the RFID chips in the access cards and key fobs for offices and apartment buildings. Now Cambridge startup iCache wants to simplify things, storing all that data into one credit-card-sized gizmo called, logically enough, the iCache.
The device is part wallet, part Swiss Army knife. It stores personal data in encrypted form on internal microchips, and retrieves that information on demand in whatever format is needed. Want to charge dinner to your AmEx card? Choose that account from the menu on the device’s LCD display, and the card number will be temporarily recorded on the mag-stripe of a plastic card that slides out of the device. Downloaded an electronic dog-food coupon on your PC last night? Just call it up on the display and hand it to the pet store cashier, who can wave it over her barcode scanner.
But the catch in the i-Cache, excuse the pun, is that only the person who owns the data can retrieve it: the device won’t cough up a byte of data until it verifies the owner’s identity via a built-in fingreprint scanner. This supertight security, coupled with the device’s Jack-of-all-trades abilities, could mean an end to bulky wallets and purses, not to mention concerns about loss and theft. If your credentials are stored on an iCache, you don’t have to call dozens of credit card companies and other agencies to get all your old cards canceled and new ones issued. Just call iCache (or, more likely, your bank, since the devices will be distributed first to the platinum customers of big financial institutions), and a new device can be programmed and shipped overnight.
iCache CEO Jon Ramaci, a former member of the manufacturing and technical group at database giant Oracle, says the idea for the iCache device came from working with Oracle customers and watching where information flows—and jams up—in the electronic economy. Says Ramaci, “Every part of the economic flow, from the factory to the warehouse to the point of sale, is digitized today with the exception of the consumer, who is walking around with what amounts to a pocket full of insecure floppy disks—really, a 40- or 50-year-old technology.”
The fingerprint scanner is only the first layer of technology protecting personal data stored on the iCache from potential hackers and identity thieves. Data packets aren’t passed anywhere, even between the device’s subcomponents, unless a secure “header” based on the owner’s fingerprint scan is verified first. Components on the device can’t be replaced or tampered with, since they won’t talk to each other at all unless their signatures identify them as the same components the device was “born with” when it was manufactured. And though the card’s data is backed up on remote Web servers, it’s broken up into parts that can only be reconstituted on the device itself. The device far exceeds the security standards issued by Mastercard and other financial giants, Ramaci says. “A good two years’ worth of engineering went into this.”
A “major, major” bank whose name Ramaci says he is not yet at liberty to disclose just completed consumer tests of the iCache in Los Angeles and Chicago. Some 86 percent of users viewed the devices favorably, he says—a very high number in a market where a 20 percent rating is enough to get some products get launched.
Ramaci says that his company, which is backed by angel investors and is in the midst of Series A negotiations with venture capital firms, will announce distribution partnerships with banks and other organizations in early November. The first iCache devices could go out to these companies’ customers as early as the second quarter of 2008. “We’ve talked with many financial institutions, and one, they’re all looking for ways to create stickiness and deeper, more meaningful relationships with their customers,” he says. “Two, they’re looking to prevent a lot of the fraud that goes on now. We are leveraging that.”
ICache devices won’t be available for purchase, at least initially. So there are, apparently, some things money can’t buy. But Ramaci says he recognizes that certain early adopters—perhaps the same people who paid an extra $200 to get an Apple iPhone two months before everyone else (the author included)—will want their own iCaches to flash. “We are not ruling out a direct-to-consumer model,” he says. “We hope to have that by late 2008.”