How does Back to the Future’s Hill Valley 2015 compare to today’s reality? Part 1: Identity and Payment

Last updated: 02 March 2015

To celebrate Mobile World Congress, we’re publishing a series of posts looking at how reality compares with the technological vision of 2015 presented by the classic movie Back to the Future Part 2.

It has been 26 years since Marty McFly and Doc got together that fateful day, travelling to 2015 in an amazing flux-capacitor powered Delorean time-machine. For us in the mobile and security industries, it’s interesting to reflect on how a Hollywood-tinted vision of the future differs from today’s reality, and to cast our gaze to what things might look like if we were to travel back… to the future.

The future dreamt up by writer Bob Gale and brought to the screen by director Robert Zemeckis captured the imagination of a generation and has proved remarkably prescient. Save for a few key oversights, including the internet and mobile phones, the 2015 that Marty and Doc found resembles our own reality in strange and uncanny ways. Perhaps even more impressive, technological advancements suggest some of the time-travelling classic’s over-imaginative ideas could become a part of our everyday lives in the future- and we’re not just talking about Nike’s self-lacing shoes!

Although Hill Valley may have lacked the internet and mobile phones, the film correctly anticipated the surge in biometric authentication, which we’ve witnessed in relatively recent times. We see the scanning of eyes and fingerprints to check people’s identities at several points during the film, suggesting that the people of Hill Valley recognized the vulnerability of the traditional password and moved on to more secure authentication security methods. Of course, this is similar to how we can now find fingerprint identification as a form of biometric security on our smartphones.

Back to the Future also successfully predicted the ‘cashless’ society by replacing physical cash with alternative payment procedures. Marty doesn’t offer any form of payment when he asks the cafeteria’s virtual waiter for a Pepsi. Perhaps he had a secure payment NFC tag woven into his self-drying coat? Although we don’t see anyone use public transport during the film, we do see Biff paying for his taxi by using his thumbprint. In our reality, we’ve seen a rise in contactless payments on public transport, an increasingly common sight today in many cities around the world.

While using a fingerprint, iris scan, voiceprint or facial matching can provide strong identification of the user, biometric authentication opens the door to abuse and privacy issues. The recent vulnerabilities uncovered in Apple’s TouchID highlight that businesses using biometric technology must put robust security in place before customers will accept it. Nevertheless, the biometrics market is expected to hit $13.8 million in revenues in 2015 so we can perhaps expect this form of authentication to continue to feature more in our everyday lives in the future.

The most exciting feature of biometric authentication in Back to the Future Part 2, though slightly misjudged, was the vision of the connected home. This is whereby homes would know its owner, unlocking on ‘recognition’, like McFly’s home possessing a scanner rather than a doorknob, and then responding to voice-printed commands. In reality, a lot of this sort of technology uses the smartphone as the hub of the experience, with apps and potentially even Mobile ID providing a route to secure authentication and control over the connected home. These sorts of commands could be transmitted securely, wirelessly, from a pocket device to a connected home. After all, the security implications of unauthorized access here are significant and the very fact of this possibility emphasizes the need for strong security mechanisms to protect users from unintended consequences or malicious attack.

On 21st October 2015 we will finally arrive at the point in time to which Marty McFly travels in Back to the Future Part 2, so there isn’t much time for flying cars to take over the streets and for Jaws 19 to smash the box office at the cinema. Mobile World Congress, however, offers a huge insight into the latest developments in authentication and Mobile ID, and perhaps a peek into where we could be heading in the future too.

Come back tomorrow for Part 2, when we’ll be looking at connected cars and wearable technology.