Sound Security

Apr 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Sandra Kay Miller

Voice biometrics are gaining traction in a variety of applications for strong yet simple security measures.


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Just like fingerprints, eyes and other physical features, the human voice is unique to each person. The use of biometrics in security systems has been steadily growing over the last 10 years to include technologies that use voice as an identifier, such as call centers that offer automated support.

According to Opus Research (opusresearch.net), spending on biometric security for identification systems in 2006 exceeded $2 billion. Approximately half of that was spent on fingerprint technologies, and the remainder on voice, ocular and facial technologies combined. The growth projections through 2011 for the biometric industry puts voice in third, after fingerprints and signature applications. Market research firm Frost & Sullivan (frost.com) expects the voice biometric market to reach $500 million by 2011.

Voice recognition as a means of identification offers a number of advantages such as consistency across multiple platforms, minimization of network impact and costs, leveraging existing self-service infrastructure and reducing labor costs.

In call center environments, authentication by voice has proved to be extremely valuable because it does not require any specialized client hardware or software and can work with any telephone handset or mobile device. Plus, it's more secure than using only passwords or personal identification numbers.

“With the proper information, anyone can log onto, for example, anyone else's bank account over the telephone. But when voice authentication is added, the odds of that happening fall to practically zero,” explains Mark Felton, president of the Signal Marketing Group which represents the Israel-based voice biometric solution provider, PerSay (persay.com), in the United States.

Julia Webb, executive vice president for sales and marketing at VoiceVault (voicevault.com), a global provider for voice-based biometric identity verification solutions and services, sees voice as a growing method for authentication despite the attention received by fingerprint and ocular technologies over the last several years. “With the accuracy of voice now similar to that provided by a single fingerprint, voice verification reliably authenticates that the person is who they claim to be, with the added benefit that, unlike other biometrics specialized scanners and cameras, are not required just a phone,” she explains.

In a two-year back-to-back study of voice biometric products conducted by the University of Canberra in Australia (canberra.edu.au), voice biometrics were found to return the lowest error rate among finger, voice, iris and facial recognition systems. Voice identification was second in accuracy only to iris recognition. Even in cases with identical twins and voice-altering situations, such as a person with a cold, the performance of voice recognition systems suffered little degradation.

Webb points out another driver in the adoption of voice verification. “It is a natural human interface, and identity verification can occur passively. For example, when I call my bank, I can speak my account number or my Social Security Number. Not only will the call center's interactive voice response (IVR) platform identify the digits and phrases I spoke with speech recognition, but VoiceVault's voice verification engine will confirm that I am, in fact, Julia Webb.”

While the security implications provide a strong case for voice-based authentication systems, the business benefits are equally impressive. “The ROI for voice biometrics in call centers is absolutely massive,” Felton explains. “If a call center takes one million, five million or 50 million calls, and you assume that a third of them require a live interaction between a live agent and a customer, taking 20-40 seconds each to authenticate, the savings are huge. Do the math.”

Bell Canada (bell.ca), the largest communication company in Canada with 38 million customers, has the largest customer-facing deployment of voice biometrics today. Currently more than 600,000 customers have voluntarily enrolled in their voice biometric security program.

Customers are presented with the option to sign up using an IVR system that takes approximately two minutes. Subsequently, customers who call in and speak their “pass phrase” are automatically granted access to the IVR or a live agent who does not have to verify credentials prior to offering support. Additionally, the system can support multiple voiceprints on single user accounts for authorized co-users.

Financial institutions within the United States are also turning to voice biometrics to meet the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council (ffiec.gov) mandate for stronger authentication of users during phone and Web banking. Webb believes that voice verification is one of the most cost-effective and customer-friendly ways to meet the new requirements. She offers the following example, “Using a voiceprint for authentication relieves bank agents from spending time going through an extensive Q&A period such as ‘where did you open your account and what was the amount of your last deposit?’ Questions infuriate the customers, and many times, result in the actual account holder being locked out of their own account.”

The Fair and Accurate Credit Transaction Act of 2003 requires stronger user authentication for changes to account information such as address changes — one of the most commonly used ploys for identity thieves. Felton points out that a significant portion of identity theft is also the result of criminals targeting call centers to fraudulently pick up bits and pieces of personal information through social engineering.

In addition to installations in the financial and communications industries, the health care community is looking to voice verification to alleviate many types of fraud. Applications include using voice verification to reduce fraudulent claims and the sharing of insurance cards.

An individual's voice can be used to create a digital signature when signing up for a new insurance policy — a process that can be completely phone-based and eliminate costly paperwork.

Another application where voice recognition is gaining in popularity is for password reset. Not just designed for use in big enterprises, Felton explains that by using voice biometrics in conjunction with simple helpdesk tasks, companies can greatly reduce the costs associated with users requiring a password reset.

Webb often sees an ROI on voice biometric installations within a year of deployment. “Financial institutions can see a savings of 60 to 80 cents per call,” she says.

Profit-based organizations aren't the only entities taking advantage of voice biometrics. The U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) (ice.gov) has also instituted voice biometrics into their services.

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