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The Expanding Security Technique That Could Add a Very Unique Part of You to a Database Without Your Knowledge

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Imagine being asked to speak into a microphone the next time you go to the bank, pay taxes or board a plane in order to prove who you are.

That's a very real possibility with more businesses and governments now using voice biometrics to verify personal identities. At least 10 global companies have submitted about 65 million unique voiceprints to corporate and government databases in the U.S. and Europe. Companies and governments are using the software to pay out pensions, collect taxes, track criminals and reset passwords.

The Pennsylvania-based company Vanguard Group Inc., for example, has begun asking tens of thousands of its customers to log into their accounts by speaking the phrase, "At Vanguard, my voice is my password." Similarly, Barclays PLC  began testing the software on a number of its more than 12 million clients and will be expanding the practice to all of its customers.

Photo credit: Shutterstock Photo credit: Shutterstock

"The general feeling is that voice biometrics will be the de facto standard in the next two or three years," Barclays executive Iain Hanlon told the Associated Press.

Hanlon could be right: The industry's revenue last year hit $400 million and Dan Miller, analyst with Opus Research in San Francisco, estimates that amount could double next year.

Shirley Inscoe, an analyst for the research and advisory firm Aite Group, said seven major U.S. financial institutions currently use voice biometrics to detect fraud and potential identity theft, but refused to name which ones.

"It's in the background. It doesn't affect the call in any way … nobody even knows it's happening," Inscoe said.

Two anonymous sources familiar with the practices said J.P. Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo & Co. are among two of the institutions using the technology.

Chase spokeswoman Patricia Wexler responded to the claims, saying the bank is "exploring many types of biometric authentication."  Wells Fargo spokeswoman Natalie Brown said that "sharing any information about our fraud prevention measures would jeopardize their effectiveness."

Governments that have begun using this technology include New Zealand, where the Internal Revenue Department has enrolled 1 million voiceprints, and South Africa, where the Social Security Agency has collected voiceprints from seven million individuals to verify those receiving pensions are still alive. Shahar Belkin, an executive for the Israel-based company FST Biometrics, said Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport is testing the technology in secure areas of its terminals.

While these voice recognition systems are not yet as common in the U.S., the AP reported that some U.S. law enforcement agencies have begun using the technology to keep tabs on prison inmates and parolees. Georgia-based AnyTrax uses it to spare low risk parolees from having to meet with their parole officers. Instead, offenders can simply answer their landline phone and repeat back a set of numbers.

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But some privacy advocates are expressing criticisms.

"It's at best a passive, assumed consent that they're obtaining from the calling party," said technology and privacy lawyer David Klein.

There should be regulation on both the state and federal level that govern practices with respect to the collection, use and sharing of the data so that we don't go deeper into George Orwell's world, Klein added. Another critic, Irish privacy researcher Sadhbh McCarthy, called the use of voice recognition software "more mass surveillance."

"The next thing you know, that will be given to border guards, and you'll need to speak into a microphone when you get back from vacation," McCarthy said.

Despite opposition, Inscoe said businesses "truly are trying to protect legitimate customers." Neither Chase nor Wells Fargo responded to questions related to the legality of mass voice data collection, according to the AP.

Follow Jon Street (@JonStreet) on Twitter

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