Biometric authentication

Biometric authentication is pretty new in the community banking world, but it promises to make waves in the not-too-distant future.

By Judith Sears

Not long ago, iris scans or palm prints granting or denying access to vaults full of state secrets were confined to Mission: Impossible movies. But, coming soon to a bank lobby near you, those futuristic technologies will be granting access to Jane Citizen’s bank accounts.

Biometric technologies take advantage of the unique biological markers of each person—patterns of the retina, iris, fingerprints, facial structure, voice or even behavior—as a means to identify you. Their use is quickly entering the mainstream.

Dissatisfaction with current knowledge-based methods of authentication, such as PINs, passwords and usernames, has boosted interest in biometrics. “People are all sick of passwords,” says Bob Steen, CEO of $90 million-asset Bridge Community Bank in Mechanicsville, Iowa, which is currently piloting the use of facial and finger biometrics for identification. “They get locked out, the password has to be changed. Passwords are probably the biggest pain point we have.” In contrast, a quick scan of a face or palm or the matching of a voiceprint is much less cumbersome and intrusive. That makes biometrics more convenient for the customer and more operationally efficient for banks. Paul Stockford, chief analyst for Saddletree Research in Scottsdale, Ariz., notes that voice biometric technology generally reduces the amount of time spent on verification during phone calls, creating cost savings for banks. “Every second translates into dollars, and shaving 30 seconds off a number of calls results in significant savings,” he says.

At the same time, the customer experience is enhanced. Staff members have all account information at their fingertips and can focus on the interaction, not the identification. “You can make people feel special, like you would if you immediately recognize them,” Stockford continues. “The customer gets to feel more special, and the bank is taking as much as 30 seconds off every call. That’s definitely a win-win.”

While the megabanks have begun deploying various biometric technologies over the past several years, community banks have been slower to take the plunge. One bank that’s on the verge is PyraMax Bank, a $450 million-asset community bank headquartered in Greenfield, Wis. It has partnered with Fiserv to deploy Verifast: Palm Authentication, a technology that detects the customer’s unique palm vein pattern. It grabs more than five million reference points when a palm is held over the infrared sensing device.

Monica Baker, SVP, chief brand officer for PyraMax Bank, says the bank’s primary motivation for exploring biometrics was delivering peace of mind for customers. “No one else can come in with cards and a driver’s license and pretend to be you,” she says. “We’re setting a tone from the customer’s perspective that we consider safety and the protection of their assets to be our priority.”

Easy access
Baker expects Verifast to enhance the customer experience. She notes that while PyraMax, like most community banks, emphasizes knowing its customers personally, there can be turnover among tellers, or the customer may drop by a branch they don’t normally visit. “It’s frustrating if you’ve been banking somewhere for 30 years and someone asks to see your driver’s license,” she observes. “With biometrics, customers don’t have to prove their identity, and it becomes more of a welcoming experience, rather than an intrusive one.”

PyraMax will introduce Verifast: Palm Authentication to its branches in October. Employees, Baker reports, are enthusiastic. “This is taking us from traditional banking to a totally different customer experience, with greater safety and a more social interaction,” she says.

Bridge Community Bank introduced a combination of finger and facial recognition technology, called Super ID, developed by Wisconsin-based Tascet Inc. more than four years ago. Customers can walk in and stand in front of a camera or put a finger on a pad and be automatically identified. Customers’ account information, provided by Bridge’s Jack Henry core system, will automatically be populated on bank screens.

CEO Steen says that Bridge began exploring biometrics out of security concerns. “There’s a lot of fraud in all things payments,” he observes. “Security is critical. I saw this as a way to work toward that solution.”

He believes the speed and accuracy with which biometrics can provide customer identification and comprehensive account information will improve staff performance and operational efficiency.

“Being a teller is a hard job,” he says. “If a customer has multiple accounts and is moving money, it can be confusing. Tellers have to make decisions instantly and do what the customer wants. If you start with the premise that you know for certain that you’ve identified the customer, the first and biggest risk is handled

Steen emphasizes that Bridge’s deployment of Super ID is still a work in progress. However, the community bank is confident enough that it now requires all new accounts to enroll as a 16-digit anonymous Super ID—and customers have been receptive. “I thought we would have pushback from customers, but we’ve had zero pushback,” Steen notes. “They know we’re doing everything we can to improve security, and that has resonated with customers.”

Just say the word
Voice biometric technology, which creates a unique voiceprint file for customers, has been rapidly becoming more sophisticated, leading to increased adoption by some larger banks and financial institution call centers. Among the options are Nuance’s Nina virtual assistant, which answers customer questions via text or voice and will send the interaction to a live customer service representative if it is unable to answer the query directly. Brett Beranek, director of product strategy for security, biometric and fraud prevention at Nuance, says the use of virtual assistants within smartphones and mobile apps is a key driver in the adoption of both speech and voice biometric technologies. “It’s easier and friendlier, and people can use the mobile app while driving,” he explains.

Another biometrics pioneer, NICE, has developed passive voice recognition that can authenticate voiceprints within three to five seconds.

“This can be applied to automated systems or fluid conversations with agents,” says Erica Thomson, specialist for real-time authentication and fraud. “The technology is well-advanced and in full production.” Thomson adds that NICE will either supply a business analyst or train a bank’s business analyst to manage the technology.

While biometrics promise benefits in security, efficiency and customer experience, it would be a mistake to see them as a silver bullet. In 2014, a German hacker famously turned images of German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen’s hands into a real fingerprint. Biometrics, if compromised, can reveal intensely personal information and, unlike passwords, can’t just be changed. The same arms race between banks and fraudsters and the same trade-offs between security and convenience will figure in banking decisions.

In any case, the future is here.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it…


Judith Sears is a writer in Colorado.

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