Aware sits at the forefront of a movement. The company is best known for its multimodal Knomi authentication platform, which runs on mobile devices and offers support for both face and voice recognition. The solution can be used for remote onboarding and for contactless access control, two services that have been in extremely high demand since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
That has translated to a strong year for Aware. The company processed more transactions in the first six months of 2021 than it did in all of 2021, and that growth has continued into the second half of the year. Aware CEO Bob Eckel discussed the company’s recent success with FindBiometrics Multimedia Editor Eric Weiss in our latest executive interview. He also addressed the mobile biometrics trend, and explained how solutions like Knomi will enable better and safer user experiences moving forward.
Eric Weiss, Multimedia Editor, FindBiometrics: Mobile onboarding has been one of the biggest stories of the past two years, and Aware is one of the many companies that’s benefited from that trend. You just signed a new partnership with Imprivata for their healthcare technology, for example. Why has there been so much recent interest in biometric onboarding technology and what kind of impact can a solution like Knomi have for an organization that needs a safe and convenient way to identify their customers?
Bob Eckel, CEO, Aware, Inc.: The adoption of biometrics in general has been on the rise for some time. When you add in the global COVID-19 pandemic, interest in biometrics, remote onboarding and authentication really accelerated. Suddenly in-person onboarding workflows were impossible or unwanted, and mobile onboarding methodologies started to take over. People didn’t want to leave their homes and they didn’t want to travel to a local bank or an office to conduct their business. The companies that did rely on in-person methodologies needed to pivot.
The entire purpose of onboarding is to get to know your customers – KYC – or your employees when you enroll them. Without strong security, the risk of imposters or identity theft increases, and this is where we believe biometrics come in. Biometrics are inherently a very secure authentication method because they use our unique physical characteristics. Mobile biometric onboarding – such as Aware’s Knomi solution – empowers organizations to onboard new customers and employees, and there’s no sacrificing of security.
You also mentioned convenience, and it’s a key element of biometric onboarding that Aware is focused on. Modern biometrics process using almost any smartphone or device. It doesn’t require complicated passwords or security questions, and it can be very convenient compared to other methods. At Aware, we’ve intentionally invested the ability to tailor our Knomi framework to optimize the friction/security balance. Each financial institution, or retail, or whoever tailors it to what they’re trying to do – whether it’s increased security, fraud prevention, or onboarding quickly – depending on the transaction value or size. Even before COVID, there was a big uptake, and interest in the technology has been growing around the world. Just see the benefits: you get to own your identity and control it when you use it.
That’s really the focus of Aware and the Knomi platform: it allows a truly biometric alternative to passwords and traditional multifactor authentication. It’s multimodal. You can use speaker authentication as well as face authentication. You can access financial accounts. You can put in additional security. And it’s software. It’s not a hardware solution at all. You can use your smartphone, or your internet browser. It increases accessibility and provides access to government programs and social programs. Knomi has already provided more than 43 million transactions globally, and this continues to grow daily. In my earnings call we talked about 31 million through Q3. But overall, the total is 43 million transactions globally, so that’s almost a 4X increase in transactions over just last year. It’s working. Our customers using Knomi serve about 20 million users and 30,000 organizations across the globe. It’s a good product that we’ve been getting a lot of traction on, not just because of its robustness, but its ability to tailor to the environment that they’re in. We’re very excited about the product.
Eric Weiss, Multimedia Editor, FindBiometrics: You did touch on it at the end of your answer there, but Aware has been posting some really stellar numbers in your past two quarterly reports. You also hinted that you processed more transactions in the first six months of this year than you did in all of 2020. What’s been driving that recent success, and what do you need to do to make sure you stay on that trajectory moving forward?
Bob Eckel, CEO, Aware, Inc.: You’re correct. We did surpass our 2020 transactions. We’re now up to more than 43 million transactions protected by Knomi worldwide. We’ve seen growth over the last five quarters and it’s not just a testament to the adoption of biometrics and the value proposition. We’re seeing a growing need and desire for biometric solutions, both commercially and in the government space. In the commercial space, identity fraud is driving demand, and it’s contributed to our surge in the past year. Additionally, in the government space – where I know they’re looking at imposter scams, such as tax refund fraud – it’s also driving increased adoption. Then you get into contactless travel and border management—being able to get through borders or being able to do a transaction just by looking at a reader and not having to touch anything or get close.
Our offerings address these and improve the peace of mind of the stakeholders, both on the business side and the consumer side alike. The volume is a testament to the strength and the scalability of this particular product. New customers are looking at it and its effectiveness. We’re anticipating market needs and contactless solutions, and then we’ll be able to continue beyond Knomi. There is also a consumption-based need. You have people who want to buy just what they need to use, and through our SaaS offerings, they’ll be able to get that as well, based on our Knomi framework.
Eric Weiss, Multimedia Editor, FindBiometrics: One of the big use cases you’ve been talking about is contactless access control, especially for businesses that are trying to reopen in the middle of the pandemic. What are the benefits of a platform like Knomi in that particular use case for corporations that want to bring people back to the office, and what kind of feedback have you received from clients that have deployed the solution in those kinds of settings?
Bob Eckel, CEO, Aware, Inc.: Typical visitor access control systems usually require key fobs, key cards, kiosks, or somebody at the front desk to check in. These things, when they’re lost, could be security hazards. Key cards can be stolen. They’re not tightly associated with anyone, and potentially grant outside individuals access to the company’s sensitive assets. Biometric technology avoids the need for these physical elements. Only the authorized individuals gain access to the buildings or the digital assets. Part of that is even through your mobile device. One of the key things that we’re focused on is the touchless solution and not having to change the infrastructure; essentially being able to use existing front desk kiosks or tablets. It can leverage the cameras that are there, or the microphones that are there within your smart device – a lot of buildings have it already.
The nice thing about the technology that we have is that it uses the existing infrastructure and biometric access. You’re controlling it, it’s quick. And since it’s software, it can be integrated in and tied into it. Some of the software could be downloaded as part of the application, or built-in and to get fast access. You can reduce costs as well. We’re making sure that the barrier to entry of using biometrics is as small as possible and putting control back in the individual’s hands.
Eric Weiss, Multimedia Editor, FindBiometrics: Could you elaborate a little bit on the kind of concrete benefits some of the people who have deployed your technology are starting to report in their own workforce? What kind of responses do you get once the system is up and running?
Bob Eckel, CEO, Aware, Inc.: They don’t need to have a manned area, somebody that checks them in and checks them out. It can be added to the access control system. You show up, it pings you, you look at your phone, and you’re able to walk right in. If that’s not accessible to you, you can speak into a speaker recognition [device] and do that. It’s simple, it cuts costs. It also can be used for things like timekeeping. The people that are using it are just saying, “Wow, this is easy. It’s easy to use. It’s intuitive. I’m always looking at my phone anyways. I have it with me.” And if your phone or device is lost, anyone who finds it doesn’t get access to sensitive assets.
Eric Weiss, Multimedia Editor, FindBiometrics: The use case you were just talking about is a corporate private use case. It’s a smaller number of people. What if you’re talking about the general public, or even if you’re talking about a public facing business, like a restaurant or a theater, or a retail outlet? Do the benefits of Knomi change at all when you’re in one of those more public-facing environments, or even when you’re in a corporate environment where you have to worry about visitor management?
Bob Eckel, CEO, Aware, Inc.: We don’t think so. Mobile biometrics lets Knomi operate virtually in any setting, so it’s flexible. It’s a framework that allows you to be incorporated into nearly any solution, if you have your own existing applications or are using another application. We’re actively working on solutions for events and hospitality spaces. I absolutely see a future where people can attend a show or a game safely and conveniently using biometrics. You own your ticket, you’d go through. Plus, with age dependent purchases, such as alcohol or the like, you can ensure that the individual can make the purchase without having to repeat and show the identification over and over.
The nice thing about that too is, when you do that, they don’t need to know where you live or have any more information about you whatsoever. You’re biometrically enabled to go through. In these cases, you’ve opted in, and are pre-registered with the particular club or the venue. Once you opt in, it can be shared across multiple venues, multiple events, so you don’t have to keep doing it over and over again.
Eric Weiss, Multimedia Editor, FindBiometrics: Are we going to start to see this new scenario where mobile onboarding technology is actually going to make your in-person experience better, once we are able to go to spaces like games and theaters more comfortably again?
Bob Eckel, CEO, Aware, Inc.: Yes. We’re testing a few things out, but as it’s married with the venue that you’re going to, you’ll be able to go through with less friction. It’s a different version of the fast pass or fast lane that you see on a highway that takes a picture of your license plate, which isn’t that personal. You go in, and you control it as you go in, and it knows you’re supposed to be there. It’ll speed things up. It’ll make it convenient. It’s in your hands as well. If somebody else claims to be you, then it’s easy to tell it’s not, and you don’t get inconvenienced.
Eric Weiss, Multimedia Editor, FindBiometrics: We’ve been talking about Knomi, which offers support for two main biometric modalities. You have face authentication and speaker authentication, and it can also run on several different types of technologies. You’ve looked at mobile devices. You’ve talked about the kiosks or tablets you might already have in a workspace. Are you seeing more of an interest in one technology relative to the other? Are you seeing more of an interest in mobile tech for in-person solutions, or are you seeing more interest in face or speaker authentication?
Bob Eckel, CEO, Aware, Inc.: I think it’s safe to say that facial recognition drives the greatest interest. For the most part it’s because people have heard of this technology for a longer time and you’re starting to see it in action, whether you go through a travel checkpoint or unlock your smartphone. Speaker recognition hasn’t achieved the same level of general awareness. I’m talking about speaker recognition, not speech recognition. This isn’t about understanding what you say and creating an action. It’s about a speaker that is recognized. Are they the person authorized to do what they are doing? It’s less about “what did they say,” more about “are they authorized?” “Is that really the person?” With our text-independent capability, it doesn’t matter what you’re saying. If you’ve consented and enrolled your voice, Knomi can validate that you are you. Now you can use it.
That’s why I gave the access control case. You can come in and get pinged when it’s not convenient for you to use your face, but now you could use your voice and speaker recognition. I expect it to grow as people begin to use it and understand, and the combination of face and speaker recognition gives you the multimodal option. You can use it in series, you can use it reverse, you can use it as fused. Let’s say you have an asset you’re really trying to protect. Speaker recognition, as well as face recognition, fused gives you a higher level of confidence. You have to say a couple of words along with presenting your face. A lot of these technologies are starting to resonate because people had to get used to it, or didn’t want to touch things relative to COVID-19. As people are traveling, they’re saying, “Gee, why can’t we do this?” You start to see more and more kiosks use facial recognition. To get that next level, mobile technology, the kiosks, the fixed stations will all start to use both.
Eric Weiss, Multimedia Editor, FindBiometrics: You’ve recently integrated your iris recognition software with Iris ID’s iris recognition hardware. I know that that particular partnership is focused on law enforcement applications, and accessing FBI databases, but are you expecting to see any other applications of the technology? Are other sectors going to be interested in this iris tech?
Bob Eckel, CEO, Aware, Inc.: Our relationship with Iris ID was designed to empower local agencies to use advanced biometrics and improve their identification capability. State and local law enforcement can take advantage of the FBI’s Next Generation iris service. They can drive adoption now, with fast, accurate iris-based identification for criminal justice use cases at any level.
The other part of your question is outside of law enforcement, can it be used for a number of civil applications? Whether it’s in healthcare, human resources, visitor management – just think of it as another modality of biometrics in addition to face and voice that we talked about. Of course, there’s fingerprint, too. Each of these accomplishes the same result: it ensures a user is authorized to perform a certain task, but uses a different biometric based on the use case.
My feeling is that iris identification lends itself very well to in-person use cases. You can see it being used for access, but you need a device. If you have the infrastructure set up, or want to have it set up, we’re ready to go. Our software and technology is compatible with all the modalities. It’s just a matter of taking advantage of the infrastructure that gets in place as we grow.
Eric Weiss, Multimedia Editor, FindBiometrics: You mentioned before that face authentication has been leading over speaker authentication because people are more familiar with the technology. Where does iris recognition sit on that spectrum of technology that people are comfortable with? Is it one they need to learn more about before they want to use more readily?
Bob Eckel, CEO, Aware, Inc.: Iris seems like it’s more personal or physical. Typically, a lot of the technology requires you to get fairly close. Facial recognition or speaker recognition is just what you’re normally used to doing – looking at your phone to open it, or looking at something to get access, or speaking. Iris is not really accessible from your own device. I think part of this comfort level is because it’s on your own device. You can speak into it. I think for government applications or some other specific lens of high security, iris recognition is fine. It is quick, but to get an opt-in it just gets into your personal space a little bit more.
Eric Weiss, Multimedia Editor, FindBiometrics: We’ve talked about the biometric market as it currently is, especially in the wake of COVID-19, but how do you think the biometrics market is going to evolve in these next few years as we do start to emerge from this global health crisis?
Bob Eckel, CEO, Aware, Inc.: I believe, in the near term, adoption of biometric technologies will continue to rise. People will use it for many processes that are done today, but at a level that’s more secure and under your control, such as account access, or password replacement, or for physical access. We expect the technology being a key driver to ending password-based authentication. Passwords, as you know, have been shown to be fraud-prone. Large scale data breaches, identity theft happening regularly – with all the security challenges and frustrations with using them, like password resets, it’s less convenient. When you forget a password you need to figure out where you wrote it down, or you need to get access and go through multifactor authentication again. Biometrics, especially if you use a couple modalities – let’s say you had access using your face but the lighting that isn’t great or it’s in your pocket – you can do speaker recognition instead. I think that’ll gain some adoption. I also think touchless solutions were brought forward by the COVID pandemic. I don’t think those are going away. I was just on a flight, and contactless biometrics doesn’t just mitigate the germ spread. It’s convenient. We’re getting used to it. It can be applied to a ton of use cases, like we talked about: visitor access management, point of sale purchases, and visiting a hospital environment, or an assisted living facility.
At Aware – and this is my personal stance – we expect biometrics to be the key driver for enabling people to own their identity so they can control it. Our goal as a company is to empower people to do just that. Give them the means to protect their personal information and decide when and where their personal information is used, and how much. If you want to buy alcohol you should be able to do that once you’ve opted in. There’s plenty of chains and clubs that you can opt into and get authenticated, so when you show up, you don’t have to break out your license and be compromised. All they need to know is that you’re of age. Ultimately, I think it’s going to give the power and the control back to the individual.
Eric Weiss, Multimedia Editor, FindBiometrics: Any closing thoughts that you want to leave our readers with?
Bob Eckel, CEO, Aware, Inc.: I think that the key thing for us is to make sure that individuals are able to own their identity, and control the use of it. As this all becomes better, if there are data breaches and things like that, it will be less likely that everybody’s data is being compromised because it will be better protected and backed up with forensics. Finally, we are a big proponent of the ethical use of biometrics. It’s the proper ethical use of biometrics that matters most, and we think it will enable individuals to control their identity and their future.