Get ready to say: “Hey Google. How much do I have in my bank account?” NatWest is to begin voice-only banking that will give customers direct access to their accounts by talking to the Google Home smart speakers now in millions of British homes.
The trial – the first by a UK high street bank – will let customers ask Google “What’s my balance?”, “What’s my latest transactions?” and “What’s my pending transactions”. Google devices will answer verbally, and also flash the answers up on the customer’s smartphone.
While only basic account information will be available under the trial, NatWest said the technology may in future allow customers to instantly transfer money and pay bills simply by talking to Google devices.
To access their account, NatWest customers will have to say out loud two digits from a new four-digit password, in a move that will inevitably raise fresh fears about security and privacy.
Last month, it emerged that Google contractors are able to listen to recordings of what people say to the company’s artificial-intelligence system, Google Assistant.
NatWest said that customers would only be able to start quizzing Google after separately setting up voice banking through their existing online banking password and then obtaining a new four-digit voice pin which would be different from their debit card pin. It added that Google would not store the customer’s ultimate banking password. The trial will only run over Google devices, not Alexa or Siri.
The bank admitted some customers may be put off by the prospect of their account information being broadcast across a room. “Other people in the area will be able to hear your balance, which is something you will want to take into consideration,” said a spokesman.
Internet security specialists immediately raised concerns about voice banking. David Emm of Kaspersky said: “If people are able to carry out banking transactions using a smart speaker, it not only raises the issue of someone recording your voice and spoofing a transaction, but also the risk that recordings stored by the vendor of the device could be stolen by cybercriminals.
He said that it was difficult to see what problem was solved by voice banking. “If every transaction requires a pin from the customer, to verify their identity, it rather negates the convenience of banking in this way.”
NatWest believes the technology could revolutionise banking in a way not seen since the start of mobile phone banking, although it added that the mass roll-out of voice banking would only go ahead after evaluation of the three-month trial, involving 500 customers.
Kristen Bennie, head of “Open Experience” at NatWest, said: “We are exploring voice banking for the first time and think it could mark the beginning of a major change to how customers manage their finances in the same way mobile banking made a huge impact.”
The technology would allow customers to multitask at home – maybe ironing, cooking or cleaning – while at the same time checking their accounts. A video NatWest prepared for the launch of voice banking features a customer talking to their bank while making a cup of tea.
NatWest added that voice banking via Google speakers would “bring particular benefits to those who have a disability as [it] eliminates the need for customers to use a screen or keyboard. There are also advantages for blind customers making it easier to complete tasks without the use of a screen or keyboard.”
The arrival of voice banking in the UK follows the remarkable take-up of smart speakers. There are now an estimated 9.6m Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa devices already in UK homes, with the number projected to top 12m this year.