Watch Your Tongue: Law Enforcement Speech Recognition System Stores Millions of Voices

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Sept. 20 2012 1:58 PM

Watch Your Tongue: Law Enforcement Speech Recognition System Stores Millions of Voices

Could law enforcement catch criminals and suspected terrorists using voice-recognition software?
Could law enforcement catch criminals and suspected terrorists using voice-recognition software?

Photo by MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images

Intercepting thousands of phone calls is easy for government agencies. But quickly analyzing the calls and identifying the callers can prove a difficult task.

Ryan Gallagher Ryan Gallagher

Ryan Gallagher is a journalist who reports on surveillance, security, and civil liberties.

Now one company believes it has solved the problem—with a countrywide biometric database designed to store millions of people’s “voice-prints.”

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Russia’s Speech Technology Center, which operates under the name SpeechPro in the United States, has invented what it calls “VoiceGrid Nation,” a system that uses advanced algorithms to match identities to voices. The idea is that it enables authorities to build up a huge database containing up to several million voices—of known criminals, persons of interest, or people on a watch list. Then, when authorities intercept a call and they’re not sure who is speaking, the recording is entered into the VoiceGrid and it comes up with a match. It takes just five seconds to scan through 10,000 voices, and so long as the recording is decent quality and more than 15 seconds in length, the accuracy, SpeechPro claims, is at least 90 percent.

The technology has already been deployed across Mexico, where it is being used by law enforcement to collect, store, and search hundreds of thousands of voice-prints. Alexey Khitrov, SpeechPro’s president, told me the company is working with a number of agencies in the United States at a state and federal level. He declined to reveal any names because of nondisclosure and confidentiality agreements. But Khitrov did divulge that various versions of the company’s biometric technology are used in more than 70 countries and that the Americas, Europe, and Asia are its key markets. Not all of its customers are law enforcement agencies, either. SpeechPro also designs voice recognition technology that can be used in call centers to verify the identities of customers. Depending on the size and specifics of the installation, it can cost from tens of thousands up to millions of dollars.

The FBI is separately pursuing voice recognition as part of its efforts to take advantage of various biometric methods of investigation, and the National Security Agency has also supported the development of the technology.

However, the advance of a mass, countrywide voice recognition system raises some obvious concerns. Russian secret services watchdog Agentura.ru reported earlier this year that Speech Technology Center’s products have been sold to countries including Kazakhstan, Belarus, Thailand, and Uzbekistan—hardly bastions of human rights and democracy. What if the VoiceGrid Nation system were in the hands of an authoritarian government? It has the technical capacity, for example, to store a voice-print of every single citizen in a country the size of Bahrain—with a population of 1.3 million—which would allow state security agencies to very effectively monitor and identify phone calls made by targeted political dissidents (or anyone else for that matter).

When I ask Khitrov about this, he uses an analogy about the character Raskolnikov from Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, who killed an old woman with a stolen ax. “People have used axes domestically for hundreds of years, but some people choose to turn it into a weapon,” he says. “We just make sure that we work with trusted law enforcement agencies and try to make sure that they use it properly.” SpeechPro’s technology is used for only “very noble causes,” he adds, citing a case in Mexico where he says it was used to identify and find kidnappers who made ransom calls before they were about execute a person. Though when I ask for more examples of how VoiceGrid is being used in Mexico, he admits, “We don’t know the specifics because that’s their information.”

Like iris-scan databases and facial recognition systems, it seems inevitable that voice recognition will eventually become a staple law enforcement tool. Companies selling voice-changers could be in for a windfall.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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