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David Braue
Editor at Large

Voiceprint authentication starts to go mainstream in Australia

News Analysis
May 31, 20203 mins

Deployments by the Australian Taxation Office and now the National Australia Bank may help bring biometrics authentication beyond the smartphone.

voice recognition equalizer sound wave
Credit: Thinkstock

In a time of growing concern around phone-based fraud and identity theft, around 120,000 customers of Australia’s largest bank have been enrolled in a voice-based biometric service that is shortening the time needed to authenticate the 20 million calls National Australia Bank (NAB) handles every year—and perhaps showing the way to greater use of biometrics authentication.

Although common in smartphones through fingerprint readers and facial recognition, biometrics authentication technology has had on-again, off-again popularity elsewhere. But growing fraud rates and consumer acceptance are finally propelling biometric authentication technologies like voiceprint recognition towards mass adoption.

The technology’s popularity is being driven by its security relative to conventional ‘static’ biometrics that are driving identity theft en masse, with ever-improving algorithms providing better and more accurate data collection even in noisy environments.

NAB’s initial success with voiceprint authorisation, said Chris Barnes, NAB’s head of direct channel development, lay not only with the non-intrusive nature of passive voiceprint collection but the fact that many Australians were already familiar with the technology thanks to major deployments like that at the ATO.

With more than 6 million customers, NAB has long been a high-priority target for cyber criminals and fraudsters who have peppered its customers with phishing emails, fraud that exploited flaws in the new PayID mobile payments system, and data breaches due to human error. Other major banks in other countries have also rolled out voice biometrics authentication. So has the Australian Taxation Office (ATO), where Nuance voice authentication services have already enrolled the voiceprints of more than 15 per cent of Australians.

Using a process of passive authorisation—in which customer voice samples are collected from the moment the call is picked up—NAB has been steadily enrolling customers in a biometric authentication system powered by Nuance Communications.

That system displays a green symbol once enough data has been captured to create the voiceprint, prompting the customer service representative to ask the customer for consent to enrol them in the system. “We’ve had no feedback from customers around concerns with using biometrics”, Barnes said, citing “very, very low” levels of pushback.

Unlike the NAB’s passive approach, the ATO requires users to repeat the phrase “In Australia, my voice identifies me” three times—making it obvious that a voiceprint is being collected and processed.

Part of NAB’s efforts were to streamline the authentication process across its 20 IT systems in six call centres that customers could interact with as they were transferred from one department to another based on the banking products they had called about. That transfer could result in reauthentication, making the experience unwieldy for both customers and staff. For further authentication efficiency, the use of voiceprints rather than one-time codes sent via SMS or other manual methods also shortened the authentication time to 30 seconds, down from 60 to 90.

More-responsive customer service will be crucial as Australia kicks off its major industry-wide ‘’ transformation on 1 July, when the new Consumer Data Right (CDR) regime will push NAB and its other Big Four rivals into a new data ecosystem that will boost competition by streamlining the .