Viewpoint: Why we need voice biometrics

Brett Beranek has a friendly manner and ready smile as he sits opposite me in a meeting room at the W Hotel in central Manhattan. He has been in the biometrics space for 15 years and has worked through the more popular biometrics spaces of fingerprints and facial recognition. Now, in his role as Director of Product Strategy at Nuance Communications, he is firmly concentrated on the voice.

Voice biometrics has always seemed like the forgotten cousin of other forms of biometrics but Beranek – who is very knowledgeable despite a vested interest – believes this should not be the case. “Face recognition is limited on a smartphone camera,” he says. This is because the angles photos are taken at and lighting conditions are rarely optimal. Similar problems with virtual fingerprints make voice “significantly more secure”. 

“It is about the quality of the data sent in the algorithms,” he explains.

Voice can also be used across multiple devices and channels and is a “dynamic biometric”. This means that while you only have one face, two irises and 10 fingers, you have an infinite number of spoken words you can set as your password.

In addition, there are plenty of people you may not want to give your fingerprints to. “But I am sharing my voice all the time,” says Beranek. And as speaking into apps like Siri and Google Now become more commonplace, speaking into a machine has suddenly become very normal.

“It takes fraudsters an average of 10 tries to get a four-digit passcode,” says Beranek. Yet this is usually the default when fingerprint or facial authentication on a smartphone fails – which it does a lot of the time. “Voice should be the alternative,” he says.

There are also clear cost and ease-of-use benefits to voice biometrics in certain circumstances. The most obvious of these is in the contact centre. If every call starts with a minute or two of questions, this reduces efficiency and also really annoys people. From a customer perspective, if the call centre could validate it was you simply by the sound of your voice, instead of the boring rigmarole of security questions, it would be a much more pleasant experience.

Beranek says although this is not commonly used everywhere it is fairly usual in Eastern Europe which has more stringent authentication processes. It is also gradually creeping into other parts of the world and is likely to increase over the coming years.

It was first deployed by Barclay’s Wealth in the UK in September 2012, for example, and last year expanded to the bank’s other customers. For obvious reasons “finance is the number one industry,” says Beranack. “[This is] followed by telecoms and government.”

Interestingly, in terms of government usage “Australia is at that forefront,” says Beranek. This is because Australia had a “strong government mandate to improve the ease of connecting people”. The Australian government is far better than other places in the world at this – many places simply don’t care about the customer experience of their citizens.

Beranek believes that the other main area of potential for voice biometrics, which is gradually starting to be explored, is in the arena of personalisation. This has huge potential in the new world of smart homes.

For example if you say to your TV “show me comedy movies” there will be a sea of difference between the preferred choice of you and your seven-year-old daughter or 90-year-old grandmother. However, if the TV could recognise the difference between the voices it could make a useful selection, based on who asked the question.

Voice biometrics can help us “replicate human behaviour” concludes Beranek. In real life all you need to do is talk to someone and they know who you are and what you like. There is no reason why computers can’t do that too.


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