Look Who’s Talking

We recently highlighted on this blog how, while software gets all the attention at the intersection of financial services and technology, hardware has a unique role to play in enhancing the customer experience. From mobile devices to the new Google Glass, we’re going (or at least hoping) to see new form factors emerge, each one doing its part to make some functions easier and enable new capabilities. But there are other elements at play here too. For example, say something.

Yes, that unique instrument known as the human voice is gaining importance in banking, and it should be fun watching how this evolves.

For the past few months, the wealth management division of British banking conglomerate Barclays has been using voice-activated biometrics technology to enhance security through authentication at its call center. Combined with existing caller ID procedures, it takes only a minute of controlled conversation to authenticate the caller’s voice.

To be sure, it’s not an entirely seamless process. While the recording mechanism is always running, callers must consent to enrolling in the system and having their ID associated with the voice print (the record is otherwise discarded). The system does raise some privacy concerns, and the bank itself acknowledges that the process can get in the way of a smooth customer interaction.

But then there are the benefits. The company behind the technology, Nuance FreeSpeech, claims that the vast majority of Barclays’ clients, 93 percent, gave a very high rating to the system’s speed and ease of use. Besides, any element that enhances security should be welcomed.

Yes, we can all think of ways to get around these barriers—the Mission Impossible movies have shown us myriad methods for overcoming voice-activated security controls, just as James Bond got around fingerprint obstacles in the Sean Connery days. But security is too important to let such issues dictate which standards are set.

Just this week, we learned that a new botkit is celebrating the one-year anniversary of Google Play by leveraging verified accounts in that thriving environment to lure users with phony banking applications. The Czech Republic’s stock exchange in Prague, its central bank and several commercial banks were partly or fully crashed by (presumably) a posse of sophisticated hackers, threatening or at least affecting online banking processes. And of course, the hacktivist collective known as Anonymous recently took credit for an attack on an investment banking firm, while Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Cyber Fighters promised another round of DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) and other attacks on financial institutions.

Just another day at the office for security professionals.

Yet while security remains a paramount concern, there should be other benefits as well. The whole point of new technologies is not merely to ease and secure current functionality but to offer new capabilities. Just as with new form factors and mobile applications, we should be able to do things with voice- and speech-recognition technologies that we can’t do any other way.

Looking ahead just a little bit, it’s entirely possible that we’ll get technologies that can transmit our voice to central servers without a visible microphone, which will be sewn into our clothes on even embedded in our bodies. Creepy? Definitely—but if it’s accompanied by a raft of new applications that offer dazzling capabilities and greater security, who’s going to complain? Speculation welcome.

Written by Banking.com Staff