Ontario privacy czar applauds voice biometrics

With the help of encryption, voice biometrics technology has taken a big step forward in strengthening its privacy and security measures, according to the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario.

The major advancements have come from Europe, where Netherlands-based electronics giant Philips has taken its biometric encryption technology and applied it to Israel-based PerSay Inc.’s “voiceprint” and speak verification products. According to Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian, the combination of these technologies has ushered in a new layer of privacy and security.

“In the past, voice biometrics has basically been conducted in the clear and it hasn’t been encrypted,” Cavoukian said. “So when your voiceprint is sent across the network and back to the server, the information could be vulnerable. Now, you can replace that with a highly protected system that will give you the benefits of voice biometrics, but with enhanced privacy and security.”

Biometric encryption is a process that securely binds a PIN or a cryptographic key to a biometric – which includes physical characteristics such as fingerprints, retinas, palm prints, or voice recognition.

Cavoukian referred to biometric encryption as a positive-sum technology and encouraged any organization sitting on the fence for voice biometrics to consider adopting it with this new encryption system.

“Based on these developments, I’d encourage anyone that is considering voice biometrics to look at the Philips/PerSay model and explore the encryption technology,” Cavoukian said. “I could see why people would hold back until there was a viable encryption system. But now I’m truly delighted because nothing could be more superior than biometric encryption.”

One application for the technology involves remote voice authentication. In standard remote authentication systems, a customer’s voiceprint is collected at a terminal and subsequently sent to a processing server, which compares the voiceprint with a stored template/biometric before sending it back to the terminal for authentication.

With biometric encryption, however, the process is altered and the biometrically encrypted template is sent to the terminal, as opposed to sending the voiceprint out to the server. As a result, no audio is ever sent over the network.

Michiel van der Veen, general manager at Philips priv-ID Biometrics, said that creating better privacy technologies will help speed up the penetration of biometric solutions within the commercial market. And because of how convenient the technology can be, he said, biometrics will play an increasingly larger role in the average consumers’ life.

“If you start thinking about using sensitive biometric information in all kinds of applications, it means that your biometric identity is exposed in all kinds of commercial solutions and can suddenly become available to a whole lot of people,” van der Veen said. “The current solutions already respect privacy and adhere to strict guidelines. But when you add privacy solutions like we are offering today, then you basically make privacy inherent. “No matter who is using the solution you will be able to guarantee the data and the voiceprint is not misused for other purposes.”

Cavoukian said that the most remarkable aspect of combining biometric encryption and voice recognition was the technical challenges both Philips and PerSay were able to overcome.

“What often happens is we see degradation in performance or a loss of accuracy because encrypting the voiceprint gives you far less information to work with,” she said. “The beauty of this is that not only were they successful in applying biometric encryption to voice, but we also noticed that there was no degradation of the voice technology either.”

One of the biggest markets for voice biometrics is among the financial sector, where banks are increasingly offering more and more of its services via the telephone. Cavoukian said increased privacy measures for these voice authenticated systems would be a perfect fit.

“This encryption technology would be ideally suited for sensitive tasks such as banking, checking your market account, or trading over the phone,” she said. “This is really just the beginning of the many possibilities I see for biometric technology.”

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