Israeli voice verification keeps track of visa holders to US

Persay’s FreeSpeech technology authenticates identity by phone.Since the start of 2005, foreign visitors on a temporary visa to the US have found life a little easier than before. Instead of having to report regularly to the offices of the Department …

Persay’s FreeSpeech technology authenticates identity by phone.Since the start of 2005, foreign visitors on a temporary visa to the US have found life a little easier than before.

Instead of having to report regularly to the offices of the Department of Homeland Security, where they face long waits and a great deal of inconvenience, thanks to an Israeli innovation, they now check in remotely once a month through their telephone with a new voice verification system.

Developed by Israeli company Persay, a specialist in biometric voice authentication technology, the system, which is used across America, is not only more convenient for temporary residents, but also saves homeland security officials hundreds of thousands of dollars in manpower.

Persay, which is based in Tel Aviv, began operating the revenue-sharing scheme in January this year, and now receives thousands of verifications per month. The goal is to reach 200,000 temporary residents a month. “Things are looking very good,” says Almog Aley-Raz, the CEO of Persay. “Everyone is very pleased with the system. It’s cheaper, more convenient, efficient, accurate and secure, and that’s what makes it so attractive.”

Elsewhere, Persay’s technology is also being used in a range of very varied applications. One of America’s leading financial houses uses the technology to help its customers and employees reset their passwords when they get locked out of their Internet banking sites. In the past, queries like this were carried out through a help desk where customers would be asked a series of complicated and time-consuming questions. Today this is replaced with a simple and automatic system that allows users to authenticate themselves by phone or PC. Elsewhere around the world, the technology is being used to monitor low-risk criminal offenders, and to supervise soccer hooligans to ensure they do not disrupt games.

“The potential of voice verification is huge,” says Aley-Raz, who predicts that within a few years, voice verification technology will find its way into every sector of our lives, including ordering pizza or even paying the gas bill by telephone. At present, the market remains relatively small at about $30-40 million a year. Within a few years, Aley-Raz predicts that this could rise to $300-400 million. “In time, this will become the default system,” says the 35-year-old former engineer. “All the indications are that it is about to grow rapidly in the next two to three years, and will sell several hundreds of billions of dollars. Microsoft, IBM – they all see the potential.”

Persay was founded in 2000, as a spin-off from Verint Systems, a specialist in communications interception, digital video security and surveillance technologies. In a pre-September 11th world, home security was little more than a buzzword, and Verint, which is now a successful company traded on Nasdaq, was struggling to make ends meet. It needed to find alternative commercial uses for its technology, and Persay was the answer.

In its first round of financing, Persay raised $5.25m. at a company value of $17m. before money from a group of investors led by Shrem-Fudim-Kelner Technologies (SFKT). Israel’s Bank Leumi joined the round after it started a pilot scheme with Persay for its direct banking system, First Direct Bank. The shareholders invested an additional $1m. in 2003. The company is also partly funded by the Office of the Chief Scientist.

Today, Persay offers three voice verification products that are used by financial institutions and banks, call centers, telecommunication companies, enterprise security, e-commerce, and law enforcement and intelligence.

Persay FreeSpeech is a voice authentication tool for call centers that can be used to verify the identity of a customer within seconds. The technology listens into the call and provides authentication while the customer is talking. The technology can even identify a customer when he has a cold. “The voice authentication all takes place in the background of a regular call to the bank,” says Aley-Raz. “We just listen to the voice and once we have enough audio we verify the speaker. The customer doesn’t have to do anything. We initiate the authentication process as soon as a customer starts talking.”

Aside from increased security, the main benefit of the system is that it eliminates the annoying authentication questions customers are asked – such as the second letter of your mother’s maiden name, or the school you went to. This speeds up the whole authentication process. “We know existing authentication procedures are not popular,” says Aley-Raz. “Heavy users are annoyed by the questions, and infrequent users forget the answers.”

The company’s second product is the VocalPassword, a text-dependent biometric speaker verification system that verifies a speaker in real-time, using a simple spoken pass phrase. “We just need two seconds of audio to be able to recognize a speaker,” says Aley-Raz.

This system is usually integrated with interactive voice response systems and can replace pin codes and other authentication methods. Alternatively, it can be used as an additional layer of security for high risk transactions. Aley-Raz believes the vocal password can dramatically reduce the inconvenience of passwords, which are easily forgotten and take a great deal of time to reinstate.

Though there are many different forms of biometric identification today, Aley-Raz believes that voice authentication is the most convenient and acceptable to users. “It’s intuitive,” he says. “You use your voice all the time. It’s not intrusive. You don’t have to swipe your fingerprints, or look into a scanner, you just talk.”

There are several applications for this technology, and in 2004, Persay signed an OEM agreement with Dmatek, an Israeli company that specializes in electronic monitoring technologies. Dmatek is using the voice verification system to monitor low-risk criminal offenders across Britain.

Large companies that outsource employees, such as cleaning or security personnel, are also interested in using the technology to identify the location of employees. These companies suffer from a high level of fraud from employees in terms of time and attendance, and need to find a way to keep tabs on workers.

Persay’s third product is the SPID (Speaker ID), an advanced voice mining and speaker identification system for law enforcement and intelligence agencies. SPID is an audio processing system that searches for a specific target’s voice within a large volume of intercepted calls, regardless of the conversation content or method of communication.

The product directs law enforcement agencies to relevant calls that contain the target’s voice. Aside from enhancing the operational efficiency of the law enforcement agency, the system also offers increased privacy protection for individuals since it only focuses on relevant suspected calls. Aley-Raz says this system is already operating in agencies around the world.

Persay, which now employs 18, began sales in 2001, and in 2004, revenues reached some $800,000. Already this year, sales figures have doubled, and Aley-Raz hopes to end the year with good sales. For Persay, the problem has always been its slow sales cycle. Companies carry out lengthy pilot schemes before making purchase decisions. Several pilot schemes are now underway, and Aley-Raz hopes orders will come soon.

So far, Persay has about 20-30 installations worldwide. Customers usually prefer not to be named, though Persay recently signed several significant deals. In February it signed a tender worth some $500,000 with British Telecom to add its speaker verification platform to BT’s URU online identity verification service to try to combat identity fraud. BT hopes to deploy the system throughout the UK, and other countries where it operates.

In October, Holland’s Ministry of Justice approved Persay’s speaker verification technology to monitor hooligans banned from attending soccer games. The system assists the police in ensuring that hooligans, convicted of violent acts and banned from soccer games, comply with their detention period. They will be remotely monitored from their homes during games.

The Persay system will be deployed in a number of European nations through Elmo-Tech, a subsidiary of Dmatek, and operated by ADT Security Services, a global security monitoring company that also works with Persay in the US.

Persay has also won a new deal with a leading Asian-Pacific telecom company, which plans to use the technology in government projects and call center services.

Until recently, Persay had two main competitors, ScanSoft and Nuance Communications, two leading US companies that offered a range of technologies from the speech recognition field. In September the two companies merged, and ScanSoft changed its name to Nuance. Aley-Raz insists that this move reduces the competition that Persay faces. “There are a great deal of mergers going on in this industry now and it creates a lot of opportunities for us,” he says.

“Persay may be one of the smallest companies in this sector, but we are focused and our technology is more advanced because it blends technologies from several different fields.”
Microsoft has also moved into the speech recognition field, and Persay worked with the giant to incorporate its speaker verification technology into Microsoft’s speech recognition platform.

New privacy protection regulations in the health and financial services industries are also likely to project voice verification into the mainstream, predicts Aley-Raz. “Demand is growing,” he insists.

Persay’s goal now is to focus on sales and marketing and to exploit the new opportunities that are emerging as the market matures and consolidates. “Our goal is to take this technology to the mainsteam,” says Aley-Raz. “It’s getting there. We believe the industry is about to take off.”

About Nicky Blackburn

Editor and Israel Director, Nicky Blackburn has worked extensively as a journalist and editor both in Britain and Israel for a range of national and international publications including The Cambridge Evening News, London News, Travel Weekly, Israel High Tech Investor, and The Times of London. She was the Associate Editor at LINK Israel’s Business and Technology Magazine, and the High-Tech Correspondent for The Jerusalem Post.