Why voice biometrics should be embraced by government

By: Brian Redpath, Public Sector Director, Nuance Communications
Published: Thursday, January 21, 2016 - 13:20 GMT Jump to Comments

Benefits range from improving productivity and customer experience right through to tightening security and combating fraud within organisations.

Digital transformation is high on the agenda for public services. Led by the Government Digital Service (GDS), gradual changes to support the initiative have emerged such as providing online council tax services, digital voting and hospital appointment updates by text message. Citizens are hungry for this change. Nearly 40% of people want the UK to speed up digital progress and 54% would like to see the government do more in this area.

What is currently lacking is a simple and effective way to identify and authenticate citizens so they can access public services across multiple channels. If we look at sectors like finance, Barclays Bank is already using voice biometrics technology to achieve this. It not only provides quicker and improved services to customers but helps the bank combat fraud and save costs.

Why voice biometrics?

Voice biometrics has many benefits ranging from improving productivity and customer experience right through to tightening security and combating fraud within an organisation. With this technology, agents can authenticate citizens calling in to a help line far quicker than other identification services.

Identity can be verified during the course of natural speech or conversation and confirmed in seconds, rather than having to answer numerous security questions or remember various passwords - these can be very frustrating for customers.

This means frontline staff can spend less time verifying the identity of an individual and more time helping answer their questions, which provides a better customer experience. For the department involved, this dramatically reduces the ‘cost to serve’ per interaction and delivers significant gains in efficiency and productivity.

Accurate and speedy authentication is absolutely critical, particularly as the threat of fraud intensifies. Just last year 100,000 US taxpayers' personal details were lost when this data was illegally accessed by cyber criminals.

This kind of information is often gained by old-fashioned social engineering: confident tricksters convince people to share information needed to access or amend an account.  This is where voice authentication can really help as a preventative measure.

Even if fraudsters do have all the information they need, they will be stopped instantly as soon as they call in to the call centre. Everyone has a unique voiceprint, which is impossible to forge. This means a caller’s details can be matched to a high degree of accuracy and known fraudsters identified as soon as they speak to an agent.

Despite these benefits of voice biometrics being deployed extensively in the private sector, a recent Parliamentary report criticized the government for failing to have a strategy around biometrics. The administration has promised a response before the end of 2016. To help the government frame its response we have outlined some key suggestions and considerations below that can be adopted as part of its wider strategy.

1. Millions of people choose to contact government departments such as HM Revenue & Customs, the Department of Work & Pensions and agencies like the Student Loans Company by phone – either landline or mobile.  Despite rapid advances in website functionality, phone is often more convenient.

It is easier to discuss complex questions over the phone and for many groups in society, particularly the elderly, the phone is still the preferred option. The government should try to broaden its definition of digital to encompass more than just website browsers and include mobiles, apps, landlines and social channels.

2. Voice biometrics should form part of the forthcoming national biometrics strategy as it works across web, mobile, phone and in person. Officials involved in developing the biometrics strategy from the Home Office and Government Office for Science can learn from private sector organisations in banking, insurance, telecoms and by looking at other countries, such as Australia, who are already using voice biometrics to speed up customer identification and service.

3. The strategy development should be carried out in an open and transparent way and engage with external parties and experts in this area. Otherwise there is a risk of raising unnecessary concerns amongst citizens regarding the storage and use of biometric data. The Australian Tax Office took a very forward-thinking, inclusive approach with its implementation of voice biometrics, engaging with privacy and civil liberties groups from the outset to ensure that the system worked for citizens as much as it did for policy makers.

4. The Information Commissioner’s Office should establish clear guidelines on the use of voice biometrics. Given that it can be used by public sector organisations within the current Data Protection Act framework, in a similar fashion to any other personal information gathered, there is less of a risk of new compliance issues. This needs communicating. Educating and generating awareness among citizens and public sector organisations will be critical in explaining that voice biometrics data will be used safely and responsibly.

5. Voice biometrics shouldn’t be the only area of focus. The GDS should look at all other available technology, as part of its 9 Identity Assurance Principles, and broaden out the Verify programme to take account of this.

What can we learn from Australia?

If we look overseas, the Australian Tax Office (ATO) is a model example of a leading public sector organisation that has already embraced voice biometric technology. As an organisation tasked with having to handle large volumes of citizen enquiries of varying complexity as efficiently and securely as possible, it decided to reduce handling time for each enquiry with voice biometrics. Essentially, it allows the ATO to relieve customers of prolonged and intrusive questioning to confirm that they are who they claim to be whilst helping to prevent identity theft in the call centre which is on the rise. The UK's public sector can definitely learn from this.

By embracing voice biometrics as part of its wider digital strategy and with support from the government, public services will not only enhance the citizen experience but enhance efficiency, save money and polish tarnished reputations by mitigating fraud. As our recommendations suggest, the entire process needs to be carefully planned must include input and advice from relevant third parties. Action should, however, be taken now to drive change that meets today’s demands and those of the future.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Information Daily, its parent company or any associated businesses.



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