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New Zealand’s Tax and Social Welfare Authority is Voice Authentication Success Story

2014 March 27
by Dan Miller

Screen Shot 2014-03-27 at 4.14.23 PMWhen it comes to using voice-based authentication as alternatives to PINs and passwords, the world could learn a lot form New Zealand. In scope, duration and staying power, the Kiwi’s plans for eGovernment and ID proofing put the rest of the world to shame. This point was made manifest when Revenue Minister Todd McClay proclaimed on the government Web site that the department’s Voice ID service had hit and exceeded a 1 million enrollee milestone, going so far as to say that 60-70% of callers to IRD  have registered their voiceprints which is “saving taxpayers a staggering 8,500 hours of phone time each year” as they turn to the phone channel to check their account balance, receive child support information, track tax refunds, retrieve IRD numbers, activate online services or reset passwords.

The Inland Revenue Department (Te Tari Taake in native Maori) launched the program in July 2012 and targeted 800,000 enrollees in its first year of operation. For the record, the country has a population of roughly 4.5 million with over 6 million accounts with its taxation office. While there are legitimate reasons for such a ratio is that businesses need to establish their own ID number with the IRD. That said, the agency initially became interested in voice biometrics as a way to reduce fraud.

One case, in particular, provided incentive for IRD to step up to the Voice Biometric Plate. The department became aware of individual who said he had used names and dates of birth to obtain information on 25 people, which he then to create 103 companies and filed tax returns for all of them, each eligible for a refund. According to a report in the Government Technology Review, the raud was picked up after $53,000 had been claimed (though not paid out. In court, the the fraudster admitted that he had designed the scheme to defraud the government of $2.5 million a year by making multiple claims that fell underneath the government’s threshold.

IRD definitely has first mover status in terms of eGovernment applications. On the one hand, it has proven how simple and effective the use of voice biometrics can be. It also demonstrates the depth of commitment and thought that must go into taking a holistic approach to both ID and access management (IAM). This point was driven home at the Voice Biometrics Conference in London (November 2013) when John Dardo, Assistant Commissioner at the Australian Taxation Office (the IRD’s nearby cousin) shared his thoughts on his government’s efforts to take a “whole of the customer” approach to eGovernment and its service delivery strategy.

In essence, we have a situation where multiple government agencies are communicating with and serving individuals who have multiple credentials, identifiers, accounts and devices. To maintain trusted links and carry out trusted communications, strong authentication is getting ever more important. Suffice it to say that there are big plans to make voice biometrics a big part of establishing confidence that an individual is the person he or she claims to be regardless of when, where and how they try to reach the government. In New Zealand, the analogous program is called RealMe, which is positioned as a “single sign on” service designed to replace more cumbersome ways for individuals to prove their identity when they apply for or establish eligibility for government services or programs. The program launched in 2013. Its roadmap includes additional mechanisms for multifactor authentication, full mobile support and support for voice biometrics.

For those who are wondering, registration entails a trip to the post office with a picture and proof of identity that can be presented in person. Adding voiceprints and multifactor authentication to the mix is a big step toward fraud-reduction and trust. Because it is based on “who you are,” not what you know, it should be more impervious to impostors, yet simple to use.