Your Voice Is Your Password

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Voice biometrics can be summed up in one sentence: It's not what you know but who you are. Between Nuance Communications and VoiceVault alone, there are already about 46 million people enrolled in voice biometric systems or solutions that use voiceprints to ensure fraud prevention—with aggressive growth expected in the next two to three years—and companies using such systems are discovering a variety of benefits, including customer satisfaction and cost savings.

And while voice biometrics may seem like the latest shiny new toy for the speech industry, it has actually been around for quite some time.

"The history of voice biometrics lies in forensics and law enforcement dating back to 1958," noted Alexey Khitrov, president of SpeechPro USA, at SpeechTEK 2012. "But now voice biometrics is seeing explosive growth beyond those sectors, reaching into industries such as telecom, healthcare, and finance."

Boom Time

If there's one thing everyone in the voice biometrics sector can agree upon, it's that the industry is taking off at a rapid clip.

"Over the last couple of months, and with very minimal marketing effort, we have seen a very positive response from the market, especially in the banking and technology sectors," reports Tariq Habib, the CEO of Dubai-based VoiceTrust. "All of these initiatives confirm mainstream acceptance of voice biometrics, which has always been a few steps behind other traditional biometrics."

Voxeo is also seeing growth in its customer base. The company has partnerships with voice biometric providers Voice Biometrics Group, CSIdentity (CSID), ArmorVox, and TradeHarbor. The solutions work with Voxeo's premises or cloud-hosting IVR. Voice Biometrics Group also has its technology predeployed in Voxeo's hosting network.

"Companies in the space…[are] telling us about the demand across the board [and] the number of inquiries and opportunities they see," says John Amein, senior vice president of product management at Voxeo. "One client told us that they've seen more sales opportunities in the last three months than…in all of last year."

VoiceVault, which provides voice biometric solutions to the financial services and healthcare industries, has also seen an upswing in adoption.

"It's an exciting time to see so much interest," says Travis True, vice president of business development at VoiceVault. "Compared to a few years ago or even a year ago, the amount of interest across so many verticals has doubled or tripled."

At Nuance, interest in voice biometrics solutions has been "phenomenal," according to solutions marketing manager Brett Beranek.

Security Is Key

When people think of voice biometrics, the first thing that comes to mind is security. In the field of fraud prevention, voice authentication is poised to leap ahead of many traditional methods.

"One of the key things that we like to communicate is that our customers have consistently reduced the level of fraud once they've deployed voice biometrics," Beranek says. "It provides a far superior rate than a PIN or password or answering security questions."

Voice authentication falls into three categories, according to Voxeo's Amein: something you know, something you have, and something you are.

"Something that you know is failing because of how much information there is out there publicly that's available from a Google search," says Amein. "Something that you have is fairly common to identify who you are, such as a credit card. When you open a new credit card, you often have to dial into the company from your home phone. Even that information is becoming suspect."

Voice biometrics security is measured in terms of false acceptance rates (when access is given to unauthorized people), false rejection rates (when authorized users are erroneously blocked), and equal error rate, or EER (the rate where the percentage of false acceptances is equal to the percentage of false rejections). EERs are important because they provide a common ground for comparison for the accuracy of an engine. The lower the EER, the better suited it is to deliver lower false accept rates (often considered more important than EER) or false reject rates (considered inconvenient to users). Companies are continually improving security as the industry matures.

Dan Miller, senior analyst and founder at Opus Research, points to VoiceVault as a company that is doing voice biometrics right. In July, the company released the next generation of its voice biometric speaker verification engine for customers in the healthcare and finance industries. The new engine delivers a false acceptance rate of 0.01 percent and false rejection rates of less than five percent.

"VoiceVault's achievement is noteworthy," Miller said in a blog post. "The sub-one percent false acceptance rate is much sought after, especially in banks, where a single imposter can create havoc and give rise to significant losses. False reject rates in the five percent range can be managed by customer care applications without causing callers too much pain. In point of fact, they are not ever fully rejected. Instead they are given the chance to try again at least once before another factor, usually the answer to challenge questions, [is] invoked."

Added Benefits

Cost savings, an important bonus in using voice biometrics, goes hand in hand with increased customer and call center agent satisfaction.

There is increasing dissatisfaction with current authentication methods. Consumers find it time consuming and challenging to remember passwords, account numbers, and the name of their first pet.

"People hate passwords, and it's really last-century technology," says Clive Summerfield, CEO and founder of Australia-based Auraya Systems.

"Passwords are just not going to cut it anymore," True says. "Customers are demanding more integration instead of repeating information [for security purposes]." He adds that voice biometrics, from a customer's perspective, is "simple and fast."

It also saves contact centers money by reducing the amount of agents servicing calls for verification. At Nuance, clients have reported that once they've deployed voice biometrics, they've been able to increase revenues by improving upsell and cross-sell opportunities.

"Voice biometrics is considered a mechanism for strong authentication," Miller explains, which is key to establishing trust that callers or Web visitors are who they say they are. Such confidence is key to making an offer or completing a transaction, so adding voice biometrics to the workflow makes commerce (including upselling or cross-selling) easier.

"Customers have come back to us and said that voice biometrics has been incredibly impactful on customer retention," Nuance's Beranek says. "They're able to differentiate their customer care [from] others. These types of benefits often provide a financial benefit to the organization that far surpasses the cost benefits purely calculated within a call center, [such as] reduced handle time or improved call containment."

There's also the Siri effect: People are becoming educated about what voice technology can do and have become used to talking to phones, leading to an increased level of comfort with voice biometrics technology. Consumers are beginning to see that voice biometrics is trustworthy and convenient and also has the added James Bond factor built in.

Greater agent satisfaction is also an advantage of voice biometrics. leading to decreased costs. Beranek says a telecom client with a high turnover rate surveyed its agents about authentication measures.

Once voice biometrics was deployed, satisfaction rates rose significantly, improving agent retention rates. It turned out that asking customers security questions had been agents' least favorite task.

Vroom in the Verticals

Voice biometrics is enjoying success in the telecom, financial, government, and healthcare sectors, and to a lesser extent, technology. Other verticals are experimenting with voice biometrics for online education.

Nuance has seen its voice biometrics solutions take off in the telecom, financial, and government spaces. Of Nuance's roughly 23 million enrolled voiceprints—up from 5 million just two to three years ago—slightly more than 50 percent are in the telecom arena, Beranek says.

"This isn't surprising, because for telecom it's really a no-brainer," he says. "They get all the benefits without taking too many risks because of the nature of the transactions that they do."

Turkcell, a mobile provider in Turkey with more than 34 million subscribers, handles more than 120 million contacts each year through its IVR system. When dealing with so many interactions, shaving a few seconds off the average customer call would save a substantial amount of money. So Turkcell opted to decrease the customer authentication process, which had averaged about 25 seconds.

The company partnered with Nuance for the biometrics engine, system infrastructure, and technical support, and with Speechouse for professional services.

As of December 2011, the Turkcell deployment had more than 4 million voiceprints, making it the the voice biometrics application with the world's largest number of enrollments. Despite the size and scope of the project, the deployment paid off—its VocalPassword system reduced the average verification process time by at least 20 seconds. When multiplied by 4 million, that's a lot of seconds saved.

VoiceVault started focusing on healthcare three years ago, helping big carriers such as Aetna with various issues, including efficiently enrolling its applicants for policies. VoiceVault helped companies use voice biometrics to generate legally binding e-signatures over the telephone to add security and efficiency to the health insurance application process.

"Traditionally, health insurers are a little behind the times from a technology standpoint, but we really see that they are engaging in voice biometrics," said Julia Webb, executive vice president of sales and marketing at VoiceVault, at the 2012 SpeechTEK conference. "I look at it as a great install base, where we can extend the enrolled voiceprints to other applications, such as information about benefits or premiums," Webb said. "It's…very relevant right now because of healthcare reform. The healthcare providers we've been talking to are saying, 'How are we going to deal with this major influx of applications from people who are moving policies?'"

Summerfield says that the financial and government industries are increasingly turning to voice biometrics as well.

"Banking and government spending has been on hold for the past three years," he says. "These sectors are playing catch up and investing in new technologies that streamline their operations."

In the government space, SpeechPro USA in 2010 successfully deployed the world's first nationwide voice-based identification system for the Mexican government. It remains the largest government project to date. The company is seeing an influx of inquiries in the commercial and law enforcement segments as well. Also in the government arena, VoiceTrust is currently implementing its voice biometrics technology as its Proof-of-Life program for pension payments in Pakistan, which could potentially affect 10 million people.

Voice Biometrics Trends

There's also been increasing buzz surrounding voice biometrics and multimodal use.

"Mobile apps appear to be integrated into a broader trend, which would be the multimodal approach," explains CSID's voice verified expert, Luigi Bojian. "A customer would be able to access basically the same resources using either an IVR or Web interface or a mobile app—that's where we see apps coming in. This is not a single mode to access a resource, but [is] in addition to already existing modes."

So far, the Internet has been slow to integrate voice biometrics.

"We're seeing organizations tentatively moving to bring voice biometrics to the Web as well, but that's preliminary. [Potentially] in 2013, we'll have more concrete things to say about that," says Nuance's Beranek.

"As mobile Internet grows, the use of voice will also grow in importance," Miller says.

With multimodal, VoiceTrust's Habib maintains that the quality of the cell phone network can help or undermine the widespread use of voice biometrics.

"I see the need for the industry to work hand in hand between the cell networks and telecom providers and voice biometrics providers in a way that we see less…effect of the network on the quality of the verification process," he says. "If we don't do this, I'm afraid that over time we will have challenges to the success of this technology."

Nuance's release this year of Nina made quite a splash. The multimodal virtual assistant for mobile customer service apps allows companies to add speech-enabled virtual assistant capabilities to their existing iOS and Android mobile apps.

"Voice biometrics is…a key differentiator for Nina," Beranek says. "It can actually identify you by voice, and that allows you to deliver a lot more value in the enterprise space. A bank can use Nina to perform financial transactions purely by using your voice so you can completely skip touching the screen, or having to type your name or password."

It's Not the Same Old Song

Several ingredients combine to make for successful deployments, such as the impact on the call center, understanding the use case, and realizing that stakeholders have different needs.

"There's no one-size-fits-all approach," Khitrov says. "Approach each customer with individualized ideas and provide a customized solution [with] flexibility."

Industry experts stressed that fine-tuning a voice biometrics engine is a critical best practice. Security needs to be measured in terms of false accepts, false rejects, and equal error rates, and companies need to choose the right level of security for the application.

Amein says biometrics will never be 100 percent accurate; there's always an error rate associated with imposters being able to get through and legitimate people being blocked. "Setting the parameters that offer the best possible tradeoff…is something that requires tuning."

The Future Looks Bright

The next year will see "geometric growth in the number of enrollees," Miller says. "It reflects a new level of maturity in terms of what solutions are being provided, because vendors have addressed some of the hot issues around enrollments and reliability."

VoiceVault's True maintains that the market could easily triple or quadruple in the next year and a half.

"Voice biometrics will continue to grow, and there's going to be a point where it's growing at an exponential rate," True predicts. "We're…going to see a lot of multichannel apps involving voice biometrics, so the outlook is very promising."

Beranek says that Nuance is very "bullish' about voice biometrics and sees it permeating other technologies beyond the smartphone and call center.

"We're seeing the use of voice biometrics in completely different areas, such as in consumer electronics, coming to TV and other appliances, and we're also seeing interest in the automotive space, such as to identify drivers," Beranek explains. "If we look five years out, whenever we need to identify someone, we'll see voice biometrics play a role," he continues. "We're looking at replacing the ubiquitous authentication methods of today and making consumers' lives much easier, and providing the enterprise with significant benefits."

Staff Writer Michele Masterson can be reached at mmasterson@infotoday.com.

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