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How biometrics can improve access to public sector services during the pandemic and prevent fraud

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Anton Watman)

The world was already embracing the digital age before 2020. Now, the pandemic has supercharged the process in the public sector, prompting the placement of an increasing number of services online. People are increasingly worried about visiting places where the risk of transmission of Covid-19 is high, such as enclosed spaces like public buildings, to access services. They also recognize the convenience of engaging digitally and are a lot more comfortable doing so.

Expectation of speed and efficiency

In this virtual world, individuals want fast and secure online access to public sector services and to not be bogged down with a number of security questions and passwords to confirm their ID and access their accounts. Speed is critical when consumer expectations are shaped by the experiences provided by digital behemoths like Apple and Amazon. It puts pressure on those in the public sector to provide similarly friction-free and elegant interactions.

The importance of speed and ease of use is not only vital when someone signs up to use or access a service for the first time, but when they seek to log into their account or service online on an ongoing basis. They expect, and should be able, to pass ID checks seamlessly, in real time.

Increase in online service availability means growth in fraud

Since the early days of the pandemic, there has been a sharp increase in the frequency of fraud attempts in the digital world. In fact, the Policy Exchange estimates fraud and error during the Covid-19 crisis is set to cost the UK Government £4.6 billion. Many observers point to the haste at which new services have been introduced by the Government, particularly online, along with inadequate security checks, which have exacerbated the problem. In addition to the estimated losses highlighted by the Policy Exchange during this pandemic, the National Fraud Authority predicts that £40 billion is lost to fraud in the UK's public sector over an average year.

Therefore, there’s an urgency by those within it to ensure that they are dealing with the person they think they are. This confirmation will prevent valuable budgets from being disbursed incorrectly, money that is needed to help the country get back on its feet as the health crisis abates. This means there’s a requirement for those in the public sector to carry out effective ID verification online, ideally in real time, at the point of access.

Biometrics takes verification to the next level

Biometrics is an applicable solution; the technology enables organizations to digitally identify someone using physical or behavioral human characteristics – such as fingerprints, facial features, or voice. These are all unique identifiers that cannot be replicated, avoiding the need for time-consuming security questions or the frustration of forgotten passwords. Instead, users can quickly and easily access their services or account, helping to cultivate a positive experience. This technology is already proving popular in seamlessly confirming the ID of prospective customers in other heavily regulated industries, such as banking. It is now capturing the attention of the public sector.

Biometrics works well as part of a suite of automated electronic ID verification (eIDV) services, particularly those that offer real time access to billions of consumer records from trusted entities. Only by having this wealth of data – from a Government agency, credit reporting agency, or utility companies, for example – can those in the public sector confirm identity through the delivery of fast and accurate cross-checks against the data provided by an applicant (name, address, date of birth, email and phone number).

But this is sometimes not enough. An additional level of security is needed; this is where biometrics can play a critical role. With biometrics, once the applicant to a service or product has scanned and provided their primary ID document (such as a passport or driver's license with a photo), its validity is checked in real time. The applicant then simply takes a selfie, which the software scrutinizes via an algorithm within the technology, comparing it with the master ID image. To ensure the reliability of the process, the algorithm can immediately distinguish differences between the selfie and the ID image, including facial hair, makeup, age, hairstyle, skin imperfections, and head position.

Using ‘liveness’ to ensure identity

Verification doesn’t end here. An increase in ‘spoofing’ involves fraudsters using creative methods like 2D images and video playback to try to trick facial recognition technology and ‘prove’ they are the person they are impersonating. To prevent this, liveness checks are required. This means using technology that includes a ‘challenge response’. For example, by asking the individual to blink, which confirms eye movement and proof of life, you can establish that the person is real and not a static image. It instils additional confidence that the person they are onboarding online is very definitely who they say they are.

Good software enhances the customer journey by ensuring that the lighting, sharpness, and quality of the images of the ‘live’ selfie and the ID document are sufficient to pass through the process. This includes storing customer due diligence report information the first time, every time. Also, using such software means ID checks can be performed and cleared in just a few minutes rather than waiting for a lengthy manual ‘back office’ check.

Automated biometric verification gets the job done

Because biometrics and broader eIDV services are automated processes, they are much more attractive than the physical, time consuming, and costly verification activity that traditionally took place behind the scenes at public bodies. Also, manual checks are subject to human error, coupled with a lack of training, that can mean the entire verification process is not as effective and stringent as it must be. With Government agency budgets under massive pressure during the pandemic and staff possibly on furlough, biometrics is one of several essential eIDV tools that offer a fast and cost-effective technological solution to ID verification.  

Embracing biometrics has the additional benefit of ensuring those in the public sector are compliant with regulations, such as know your customer (KYC) or citizen and anti-money laundering (AML) regulations. 

It can be challenging to stop a willful thief, particularly when the public sector is currently facing so many competing priorities and pressures. Hence the need to access automated eIDV services, particularly biometrics, which can help take the digital verification process a step further. Ideally, those in the public sector should focus on biometrics that delivers liveness checks as an extra layer of verification to help prevent fraud and speed up and improve those accessing their services.

Barley Laing, UK Managing Director, Melissa (opens in new tab)

Barley Laing is the UK Managing Director at Melissa, which has over 35 years’ experience in delivering global data intelligence, quality and identity verification solutions to organisations of all sizes.