Can Voice Biometrics Hack Computer Security? Speech Technology Can Protect Customer Data against Small-Scale Attacks

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In April, hackers broke into Sony's PlayStation 3 Network, gaining access to data from roughly 77 million user accounts. A month later, Sony's systems were breached again, compromising the account data of 25 million users of the company's Online Entertainment PC-based gaming service.

As a result of those two attacks--considered among the largest and most pervasive ever--the Japanese electronics maker shut down its PlayStation Network and related services for nearly a month. In addition, Sony spent more than $170 million on identity theft insurance and free content for customers whose data might have been compromised, improvements to network security, customer support, legal fees, and an investigation into the attacks.

Sony is not the only company that has taken a hit. This year alone, some other very high-profile and very costly cases involved Citibank, RSA (the company that makes the widely used SecurID tokens for computer access), Google's Gmail service, and U.S. defense contractor Lockheed Martin. Other cases costing hundreds of millions of dollars go back five years or more. Understandably, the spate of attacks is sparking interest in voice biometrics applications to protect customer data.

ON A SMALLER SCALE

Large-scale attacks, like the one on Sony, are the exception; most cyber crimes occur on a much smaller scale, typically involving theft of a single individual's personal or financial information to make fraudulent purchases or bank transactions. In most cases, the thieves gain access either through programs installed directly on the victim's computer or via a company's servers.

Symantec, which makes Norton Antivirus software, estimates that the cumulative bill for these kinds of cyber crimes in 24 countries totaled $388 billion last year: $274 billion in lost time and $114 billion in cash costs, including money stolen or spent resolving the cyber attacks. The company also reports that 431 million adults experienced some form of cyber crime last year, equating to nearly 1.2 million people per day, or 14 per second.

When those types of attacks occur, it isn't the interactive voice response (IVR) system or call center that is breached but, rather, the databases that support them, explains Judith Markowitz, president of J. Markowitz Consultants, which specializes in voice security.

"A lot of them end up in identity fraud, with people pretending to be other people," Markowitz says. "It's all part of a whole pattern of attacks against call centers. These are becoming more and more vicious, and they're being done by professionals as part of a global effort."

Although voice security can do little to stave off large attacks, like those that happened at Sony, some applications can go a long way toward protecting consumer information in the smaller, more targeted attacks. Using speech technologies, companies can limit access to personal accounts and related data by blocking anyone whose voice characteristics do not match a stored voiceprint.

"You can't steal a person's voiceprint the way you can get their PIN or Social Security number," says Dan Miller, senior analyst at Opus Research. "Voiceprints are stored differently--as a binary representation of the voice file. They are usually encrypted and stored separately, so the voice files are meaningless without another file to give them context."

According to Miller, most attempted hacks involving voice technologies are replay attacks, in which fraudsters try to gain access to voice-guarded systems with recordings of the voice. To prevent those attacks, he recommends changing passwords. Companies also can install security software that can detect whether an audio input is live or recorded.

Additionally, recent research from contact center technology provider Convergys found that consumers do not like giving personal information to agents. According to that study, 70 percent of consumers would prefer to use an IVR system with biometrics than speak to an agent. …

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