Digital banking Alexa, please do what you're told

Amazon's voice-controlled assistant has balked at allowing full personal banking in Europe. Some suspect the online retail giant has ulterior motives.
Not always on the best of terms.

Last year in Germany, a new era almost dawned in hands-free banking. Bonify, a Berlin-based start-up, became the country's first financial services outfit to check account balances via Alexa, Amazon's voice-operated language assistant. Like Apple's Siri or Google Home, Alexa bestows vast new powers in the user's voice of choice.

In the Internet of Things, digital slaves chat with each other to get things done. Ask Alexa to do something, and it obliges by virtue of a so-called skill, a voice-driven app for Alexa devices. Obtaining public information such as weather forecasts, the time of day, and stock prices is a breeze. But unlike in the US, where voice-driven personal banking is a full reality, tighter regulation in Europe means permissions are needed to conduct bank transfers or account checks.

Last November, Amazon gave Bonify the green light to use its skill with Alexa. But after six short weeks, the Internet giant suddenly unplugged the app. "Our skill violated new rules that Amazon had just released," sighed Josef Korte, Bonify's founder.

The disconnect was a major setback for Bonify, which cooperates with the consumer credit agency Creditreform Boniversum to provide free credit checks. But Mr. Korte's company, apparently, wasn't an exception. Late last summer, various financial institutions and IT service providers in Europe said that they were waiting for a go-ahead from Amazon – which now seems to have been canceled. "Sorry, I don't have the answer to that question," Alexa says (that is, when it doesn't laugh creepily for no apparent reason, as occurred in a recent software glitch.)

Personal banking is no laughing matter.

A letter distributed by Amazon says skills cannot allow balance queries or initiate payments for accounts accessed within the European Union. Customers are incredulous, but lack further details. The financial firms who use Alexa signed a confidentiality agreement with Amazon and aren't allowed to discuss it with their account-holders.

The reasoning behind the new rules isn't clear. One thing is certain: Since January, a new EU payments services directive, known as PSD2, means companies must check for regulatory approval when seeking to access accounts via Alexa. But banks and "electronic money institutions," which includes many retailers, can operate payment services within the scope of PSD2 without an extra license.

In practice, this means Bonify should not have to seek permission, either from the EU or from Amazon, to operate skills that access customers' sensitive account data. This has prompted speculation that the online behemoth is blocking the skills to defend its own interests – perhaps by launching its own financial-service apps. Amazon declined to comment on the matter.

09 p30 More DJ than financial advisor-01

By contrast, US banks such as Capital One, Ally Bank and American Express have long since been given the green light for skills to conduct personal banking transactions for customers. In America it's no problem to have Alexa ask Capital One how much you spent at Starbucks last month.

So far, a number of German banks such as Comdirect, a cut-rate subsidiary of Commerzbank, and Consors allow customers to access limited data such as share prices via Alexa, and a dozen or so cooperative banks have followed suit. But all are clearly eager to provide full-service account functions for their skills via Alexa.

Mr. Korte, the Bonify founder, would welcome working with the digital helpers of Amazon's rivals. "If it doesn't include the ability to check account balances, an Alexa skill doesn't make much sense for us at the moment," he said. He says he's optimistic that Amazon will relax the rules again eventually. Just don't bank on it.

Katharina Schneider is a financial correspondent for Handelsblatt in Frankfurt. Jeremy Gray adapted this story into English for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: [email protected]