How the power of voice biometrics could transform public services

Digital transformation is high on the agenda for public services. Led by the Government Digital Service, they have gradually been making changes to support the initiative such as providing online council tax services, digital voting and hospital appointment updates by text message.

And, citizens are hungry for this change. Nearly 40 per cent of people want the UK to speed up digital progress and 54 per cent would like to see the Government do more in this area.

What is missing is a simple and effective way to identify and authenticate citizens so they can access public services across multiple channels. If we look at other sectors like finance, Barclays Bank is using voice biometrics technology to achieve this. It not only provides quicker, improved services to customers but also 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 organisations. 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, which 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 efficiency and productivity gains.

What’s more, accurate and speedy authentication is absolutely critical, as the threat of fraud intensifies. Just recently, 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, where 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 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 criticised 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 such as 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 older people; the phone is still a preferred option. The Government should try to broaden its definition of digital to encompass not just website browsers but also mobiles, apps, landlines and social channels.
  1. Voice biometrics should form part of the forthcoming national biometrics strategy, as it can work across web, mobile, phone and even 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 other countries such as the Australian government that are already applying voice biometrics to speed up customer identification and service.
  1. The strategy development should be carried out in an open and transparent way involving engagement with external parties and experts in this area – otherwise it could cause unnecessary concerns among citizens that are unsure of how their biometric data is stored and used, for example. 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 the system worked for citizens as much as for policy makers.
  1. The Information Commissioner’s Office should set out clear guidelines on the use of voice biometrics. Given it can be used by public sector organisations within the current Data Protection Act framework just like any other form of personal information collected; it won’t throw up all kinds of new compliance issues. But, this needs communicated. Educating and generating awareness among citizens and public sector organisations will be critical, explaining that voice biometrics data will be used safely and responsibly.
  1. Voice biometrics shouldn’t be the only area of focus. The Government Digital Service 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 an 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 and detect identity theft in the call centre, which is rising. The UK 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 and one that involves input and advice from relevant third parties. But, action should be taken now to drive change to meet today’s demands and those of the future.

Brian Redpath, Public Sector Director, Nuance Communications

Image source: Shutterstock/Carlos Amarillo