THE MAGAZINE

Voice Biometrics Get Heard

By John Wagley

Few security-related subjects pique people’s interest like biometrics. Perhaps it is the futuristic-sounding aspect of the products. But the tantalizing prospects sometimes seem destined to remain just that. Now the regulatory push for two-factor authentication is helping move the market for at least one subset of this field: Voice recognition.

There’s been a sharp increase in the number of companies testing voice biometric technology in the past few years, says Dan Miller, a senior analyst at San Francisco-based Opus Research, which tracks the voice technology market.

One impetus came in late 2005, when the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council published guidance stating that financial institutions would need two-factor authentication for both online and telephone banking.

Many firms first secured their online channels, because they are used to process more transactions and are often considered more vulnerable, says Judith Markowitz, Ph.D., an independent voice technology consultant based in Chicago. But now more companies are turning to telephone transactions, where there’s a natural fit for voice authentication.

Whatever additional authentication method was used would have to be convenient for customers, says Dick Stern, senior vice president and treasurer at Somerset Trust in Somerset, Pennsylvania. “We didn’t want to tell them they needed to answer five questions on things like their dog’s name and the color of their first car.”

After talking with several vendors, Stern decided to test voice biometrics solutions from New Hope, Pennsylvania-based VoiceVerified.

Other businesses are taking a similar route. In one of the largest implementations, Netherlands-based bank ABN Amro introduced the technology to its Dutch customers late last year. The bank uses technology from United Kingdom-based VoiceVault.

“ABN Amro was a milestone for the voice biometrics industry,” says Sapna Capoor, Manager of the Global Biometrics Program at Frost & Sullivan. It was significant “to have such a large financial institution employing the technology.”

According to recent data from Frost & Sullivan, worldwide voice biometric vendor revenue grew from about $6 million in 1995 to about $11 million in 2006. Revenue is expected to total about $20.5 million in 2007, and is projected to grow to about $275 million by 2011. About 90 percent of companies using or testing the technology are in financial services, says F&S research analyst Imran Khan.

Khan also says voice biometrics will more than double as a percentage of the total financial services biometrics market by 2013, climbing from 6.2 to 13 percent. The market is currently dominated by fingerprint technology.

The biggest challenge to the technology has been accuracy. It works by translating a voiceprint into data points. Whether the data points in a subsequent image match the one the user registered originally is determined by algorithms.

One problem is that customers can sound quite different speaking over various telecommunications devices. “They can register on a landline, then sound very different when they’re shouting into their Bluetooth in their car with all the windows unrolled,” says Markowitz.

The technology has improved over the past decade or two; algorithms have improved along with the data collection. Independent tests show that top vendors have both false positive and false negative readings of about 0.75 percent.

“Around 2000, that rate may have been more like 8 percent,” says Markowitz.

The failure-to-enroll rate is about 2 percent, a number that probably hasn’t changed significantly in recent years, according to Dan Faulkner, a director of product management at Nuance. Most failures occur because customers give up part of the way through the process, he says. “Maybe they’re exasperated or can’t hear or understand the instructions.”

Other reasons might be that the customer has a strong cold or a thick accent. In such cases, many systems will direct users to a representative who can give that customer a chance to use an alternative authentication method.

Customers seem eager to embrace the technology. A case in point is Canada Bell, that country’s largest telecommunications firm. About five months after introducing its Voice Identification Service in March, it had signed on more than 275,000 of its customers. (The company keeps its total number of customers confidential.) Only minimal marketing was required, says Charles Giordano, a Bell Canada associate marketing director. 

When customers call, they are asked if they would like to participate in the service. If they do, they are asked to repeat the phrase “my voice is my password” four times. They are then directed to either a live operator or a self-service function. The company uses technology from Israel-based vendor PerSay.

“Once they are registered, they won’t need an account number, just their voice. It enables a customer to proceed to their request almost immediately,” notes Giordano. Customers provide only their telephone number, and state “my voice is my password.” 

Giordano says a major cost benefit stems from the reduced time representatives spend assisting customers with authentication. He also says Canada Bell went with the service partly to continue its strong emphasis on customer service, security, and privacy. “Businesses can’t put a price on good will from customers if the system works,” he concludes.

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