Google and NatWest have decided voice-activated banking is a good idea

Google Home Mini
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Google has teamed up with NatWest to let customers manage their current accounts through a smart speaker. Ask a Google Home device an everyday question like 'What's my balance' and the speaker will give you a spoken response. If you don't quite catch the answer, the same message will appear in text on your phone.

The system could be a huge help to people who find online or phone banking tricky, including elderly and disabled people, but combining banking with smart speakers leads to some understandable security concerns.

A few weeks ago Belgian broadcaster VRT NWS revealed that Google hires contractors to listen to users talking to its Google Assistant app (though their phones or Google Home devices), and transcribe the speech to make the voice recognition software more accurate.

One contractor supplied the broadcaster with 1,000 speech samples. Of those, 153 seemed to have been recorded accidentally, and many contained personally identifiable information.

Following the report, Google published a blog post explaining that the contractors are 'language experts', who only review around 0.2% of audio samples. These snippets of sound aren't tied to a specific user account, and the experts are told to only transcribe commands specifically directed at the app. It also explained how to prevent the app storing your data, or delete it after a certain period of time.

Listen up

Google has taken steps to ensure your speaker won't announce your account balance without being explicitly asked to. Rather than simply saying 'Hey Google', you'll also have to recite a pair of digits from a four-digit password. This will be a new login credential – not the PIN attached to your debit or credit card.

NatWest acknowledges that not everyone will like the idea of having their balance read out to anyone within earshot, but believes the idea has potential and is currently running a three-month trial with 300 users.

For now, the available commands are quite simple (you can check your balance and hear details of recent transactions), but in the future the bank hopes you'll be able to use your voice to manage your money without touching a single screen.

“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," Kirstie Bennan, head of open experience at NatWest, told The Guardian.

It remains to be seen whether the recent bad press about voice assistants and privacy will be enough to put people off chatting to a virtual cashier (Amazon and Apple have been called out for similar practices), or if the convenience of voice is enough to win account-holders over.