Nationwide puts faith in biometrics

Building society to test voice-recognition for telephone banking, with a possible rollout beginning in six months.

The world's first consumer trial of speech verification technology began today in the Isle of Man. The trial, to be carried out by the Nationwide building society over the next six months, will allow consumers to access telephone banking services, with analysis of voice patterns replacing manual questioning as the means of identification.

This follows Nationwide's trial last year of eye recognition technology at ATM machines, which the company said was not commercially viable.

Once a customer has registered for the trial they can access the telephone banking service by keying in a PIN number and speaking an access number. Software from speech recognition specialist Vocalis then analyses the vocal pattern of the caller and matches it against a pre-recorded template, so confirming their identity.

Although Richard Wendland, Durlacher telecoms analyst, welcomed the trial, he did not believe that this technology would ever replace human operators. "This is never going to replace personal interaction," he said. "The quality of your call centre operators is a prime way of differentiating your banking service."

The Vocalis software used in the trial is a type of biometric recognition and works by analysing elements of speech that are unique to each individual, such as vowels and certain words. Other examples of biometric technology include fingerprint and iris recognition.

Ex-super-hacker Mathew Bevan pointed out that although voice-recognition technology has been in development for a long time, security issues still remain.

"I have seen a demonstration of a voice simulation tool that records one person's voice into a box, and then lets you speak through it in their voice," said Bevan. "Also, one of the hazards of biometrics is that our bodies are always in flux. You can't deny someone their money because they have a cold," he said.

A spokesman for Nationwide said that, providing the trial was successful, the service would be introduced to its Swindon call centre shortly after the test period.

Telephone banking services allow a customer to conduct transactions such as balance enquiries, bill payments and transfers without the need to visit a branch.