Industrial Revolutions

Biometrics and mobiles: Banking's future?

Anmar Frangoul | Special to
Voice recognition: The future of banking
Voice recognition: The future of banking

How many passwords do you have? Chances are, you've probably lost count. Today, we use them for all our online activities -- everything from email to online shopping, dating and banking.

But as security breaches become ever more common, major companies are advising users to change their passwords on a frustratingly regular basis.

Perhaps more than any other industry, banking is prone to 'password fatigue'. Long PIN numbers, questions about your first pet, mother's maiden name and the color of your first car are commonplace when trying to access your account details either online or over the phone.

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But what if you could forget all of your passwords and use just your voice? Massachusetts-based Nuance Communications is a multinational software and technology company. Its voice recognition technology has been adopted by financial institutions throughout the world, including Barclays Wealth, ING and Banco Santander México.

"It's a way for technology to identify a person by the sound of their voice," Robert Weideman, Executive Vice President and General Manager of Nuance's Enterprise Division, told in a phone interview.

"Unlike fingerprints, retina and other types of biometrics, it's a non-invasive form of biometrics," Weideman added. "You can develop a voice print just by listening to a person in the same way that a human can recognize a voice, except that it's far more precise and accurate."

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Nuance's technology can be used by banks in several ways. Customers using telephone banking or mobile banking apps can access their account by saying a specific phrase, such as 'my voice is my password', or by having around thirty seconds of 'free formatted conversation' authenticated.

Just how safe and secure is using your voice as a password? Could a customer ever be forced, against their will, to access their account using voice biometrics?

"Unlike other biometric technologies we go beyond just the physical," Brett Beranek, Senior Manager, Solutions Marketing at Nuance's Enterprise Division, told in an interview.

"We're detecting a series of characteristics that are on the one hand physical but on the other hand behavioral. Your behavioral characteristics tend to be things like your accent, your rhythm of speech, the spacing you have between syllables, between words, and the list goes on," he added

"Somebody who's under duress would have a numerous number of these behavioral characteristics impacted."

Could we one day see a world where all our transactions, from stores to banks, are authenticated by just our voice?

"That is conceivable, though in banking they like to have a few factors, what's called multifactor authentication," Weideman said.

"With voice biometrics it's entirely secure, but if you add voice biometrics to a card you've got two levels of security you're leveraging for authentication. You'll find there'll probably be at least two ways to authenticate: something that you have – a card – and something that you are, a voice," he added.

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In Nigeria -- Africa's most populous country and largest economy with a GDP of $509 billion for 2013 -- cash is still most definitely king, with only 20 percent of the country's population having a bank account, according to auditors KPMG.

A combination of technology, ambition and enterprise is seeing start-ups such as Lagos-based Paga becoming a bank for the unbanked.

"Our vision is to be the leading electronic currency and to drive financial inclusion across Africa," Tayo Oviosu, Founder and CEO of Paga, told Episode 7 of CNBC's Industrial Revolutions.

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"With Paga, today you can send money to anyone in Nigeria who has a mobile phone number. They don't have to be a Paga customer, you can send money to any bank account, pay for a variety of bills," he added.

Paga currently has roughly 1.4 million users and processes 15 transactions per minute, which in 2013 were worth $300 million. The company's service can be used on everything from a top-of-the-range smartphone to an older text based mobile.

It is this egalitarian setup that Oviosu sees as being most significant.

"I think it's the ultimate democratisation of payments," he said. "It's no longer about having some long 'know your customer' requirements to be able to open a bank account," he added.

"As more people come into formal financial services and they get access to credit, to insurance, to savings…it helps elevate people out of poverty. And it's not just all the unbanked…even for those of us who are banked, it's just an easier, better way to do things."

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