Voice Biometrics Goes Mainstream - and Mobile

By Dan Nordale, Vice President at Nuance Communications — December 27, 2011

A person’s voice is one of a human being’s most unique attributes, as individual as fingerprints and retinas. That distinctiveness makes voiceprints a powerful yet convenient way for enterprises and other organizations to authenticate employees and customers who want to access information or services remotely, while balancing security and user experience. 
 
Many already are. For example, more than 2 million Bell Canada customers have signed up for a program that lets them speak a pass phrase to get access to an agent or IVR. Australia’s social services agency, Centrelink, is another example of a large scale voice biometric deployment. 
 
Those deployments are why, in 2010, Opus Research said, “With over 5 million registered voice prints supporting user authentication around the globe, it appears that voice biometric-based solutions are poised to assume the pivotal role of user authentication to support higher levels of trust among users of mobile apps, remote monitoring, distance learning, e-medicine, e- government and a host of other social activities or transactions.” Today, the number of voiceprints has increased to 6.5 million and is on track to top 20 million by 2014.
 
There are several reasons why voice biometrics deployments are steadily increasing:
Unlike passwords and other log-in information, people can’t lose or forget their voice. That makes voiceprints more convenient for users while reducing overhead costs for organizations, such as fewer password-rest calls to customer care or the help desk.
Voice biometrics also can eliminate or at least significantly reduce the series of questions that contact center agents typically ask in order to verify a caller’s identity. That streamlines a process that many users find annoying, and it reduces the amount of time that each agent spends with each caller, creating additional overhead savings.
Voice biometrics can enhance an organization’s existing security methods to enable multi-factor authentication, by adding the “who you are” layer to the traditional basic “what you know” layer. 
Enterprises, government agencies and other organizations increasingly realize that consumers find voice to be a convenient way to provide authentication information. For example, during a 2007-2008 pilot, Centrelink surveyed its customers and found that 90 percent would prefer to use voice biometrics over PINs. Ninety-five percent said they found the system easy to use. 
 
Why Mobile?
 
A growing number of voice biometrics deployments have a mobile component. One reason is because with mobile penetration now at or above 100 percent in countries such as the United States, many consumers and employees use their mobile phone to call contact centers and help desks. Many of those devices are smartphones, so organizations can take the voice biometrics platform that they originally deployed for IVR and extend it to support their smartphone apps.
 
Thanks to platforms such as Siri on the iPhone 4S, consumers and businesspeople are becoming comfortable with the concept of using their voice to control their smartphones, including the apps running them. In fact, voice biometrics is a particularly good fit for the mobile domain because it’s often inconvenient to peck out passwords and other authentication information on a smartphone or tablet’s virtual keyboard. So by providing their employees, customers or both, with a voice-based alternative, enterprises can eliminate the frustration and lost productivity that comes with other input methods.
 
Besides enabling access to accounts and other remote information, voice biometrics can also protect smartphones and tablets by providing an alternative to entering a passcode to unlock their mobile device. That’s particularly valuable for smartphones and tablets that are used for business because they contain confidential information such as files and customer contacts. By providing a user-friendly way to unlock their device, voice biometrics eliminates the security risks that arise when employees try to disable passcode-based locks simply because they find those safeguards a hassle to use.
 
As any mobile user knows, wireless call quality varies dramatically. On one call, it might be crystal clear. On the next, the user might be tempted to say “Over!” and “Roger that.” However, those variations don’t undermine the effectiveness of voice biometrics in a mobile app. The voice channel is actually not used at all when using voice biometrics to access a mobile app, but rather the smartphone app can record and then send the passphrase over a secure data connection, bypassing all of the packet loss, transcoding, vocoder limitations and other problems that plague the voice channel, making this a great fit for using voice biometrics. 
 
At the Tipping Point
 
Besides mobile apps and IVRs, voice biometrics also can be used during live calls to verify a person’s identity. Beyond adding security and possibly reducing time on manual security questions that are asked by the agent, this option can be useful for identifying known fraudsters by comparing the caller’s voiceprint to a watch list that can be prepared for an organization or a service provider. This process can be completed in as little as 10 seconds, effectively providing a significant real-time layer of security, of which can really mitigate the rising threat of social engineering in a contact center 
 
The ideal voice biometrics solution also should ensure a good user experience by using algorithms that are sophisticated enough to work around problems such as crosstalk and background noise. That accuracy would eventually translate to a better user experience, minimizing the need for callers to repeat themselves. 
 
Voice biometrics isn’t a new concept. It’s been slow to roll out but it looks like it is now reached a tipping point for a variety of reasons, including a growing selection of sophisticated solutions and the popularity of smartphones and tablets, whose apps provide new options for implementing voice biometrics. But perhaps the biggest reason why deployments are steadily growing worldwide is because enterprises, government agencies and other organizations increasingly understand how the technology can improve both their business processes and the customer experience.

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