by Gugu Lourie

The days of answering questions (like for example, “What is your cellphone number?” to verify your identity before accessing a bank account may soon be gone forever. Well, that is if you are a client of Investec Private Bank, which plans to revolutionise South Africa’s banking industry by introducing a verification system that uses voice biometrics.

The bank will be the first financial institution in the southern hemisphere to launch such a solution.

The voice biometrics verification system will be launched on the 25 February 2015 in SA. It will, however, also service customers in the UK and Mauritius through the banks’ global client support centre (CSC).

Investec Private Bank has partnered with global firm Nuance to deploy FreeSpeech, which enables fully transparent and secure voice biometric authentication. It has also worked with OneVault to deploy the technology within six months.

In essence, a voice biometric system captures the unique characteristics of a client’s voice and creates an individual voiceprint. When a client contacts the organisation, the voice biometric technology will authenticate the client within seconds. It does this by comparing the client’s voice with the saved voiceprint and if there is an exact match the voice biometric technology grants access to the account.

However, if the voice print doesn’t match – in cases where there are disturbances from voice overlays or white noise – the telephone banker will still have the option of using traditional knowledge-based verification techniques to verify the identity of the caller.

The voice biometric industry is poised to experience phenomenal growth: in 2013 the global sector generated more than $165m in revenue, which is estimated to rise to $308m by end of 2015 and as much as $421m in 2016, according to a recent study by Opus Research.

Craig West, head of Investec’s global CSC, says: “Think of voice biometrics as a vocal fingerprint. The technology is becoming really mature, your voice is unique and no one can copy it.”

But Investec’s global rival Barclays, which has operations in South Africa, has already implemented voice biometric in the UK and could easily challenge them in the local market.

“The reality is that we are the first bank in South Africa to launch voice biometrics. We believe that voice biometrics is going to have a big future to play in banking,” says West.

With so many reports of fraud the question is will voice biometrics help banks restore consumer faith?

“Every single bank in the world worries about fraud and security. We clearly believe voice biometrics is an enhancement to security. We think it is going to add a lot of value in the banking industry, and to our clients in particular” says West.

He says voice biometrics as a technology solution is “a relationship enhancer” and “fits perfectly well with our strategy” as a private bank that is a client experience-led company.

Given that cybercriminals are also getting more sophisticated the challenge is to stay ahead of them – something West acknowledges. “That’s the eternal fight to make sure we are constantly combating criminals, but this is not unique to South Africa. What’s powerful about voice biometrics is you can’t steal my voice,” says West.

Investec has thrown the gauntlet to the big four banks – Absa, FNB, Nedbank, Standard Bank – and even Capitec Bank to find simpler and more secure verification methods such as voice and face biometrics.

This article is also published in Finweek magazine, South Africa’s financial weekly magazine

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