Posted Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2012, at 3:22 PM
Rafael Correa, the president of Ecuador
Photo by ERNESTO BENAVIDES/AFP/Getty Images
The United States is often considered a world leader when it comes to deploying the latest biometric security and surveillance technologies. But it could have an unlikely new competitor: Ecuador.
According to Russian company the Speech Technology Center, the small Latin American country has successfully completed installation of “the world’s first biometric identification platform, at a nation-wide level, that combines voice and face identification capabilities.”
As I reported back in September, Speech Technology Center operates under the name SpeechPro in the United States. The company’s controversial technology enables authorities to build a massive database containing several million “voiceprints” of known criminals, suspects, or persons of interest. When authorities want to ID speakers on an intercepted call, the recording is entered into the database, which provides a match with what SpeechPro claims is about 97 percent accuracy. The system that the firm says it has provided to Ecuador also allows authorities to accumulate a large image database of suspects, with a facial recognition tool that supplements the so-called “VoiceGrid.” While facial recognition technology in the past has lacked accuracy, SpeechPro says it has invented algorithms which “deliver reliable results even when facial characteristics have undergone physical changes.”
A decade ago, implementing a sophisticated countrywide speech and face recognition system would have been a far-fetched prospect for all but a few of the world’s richest nations. But Ecuador’s embrace of the technology shows how the times have changed. According to Speech Technology Center’s CEO, Mikhail Khitrov, “we’re seeing a growing demand for these kinds of tailored voice and multi-modal biometric solutions—not just in Latin America, but in the global marketplace.” (Earlier this year the company’s U.S.-based president Alexey Khitrov told me that its biometric technology is used in more than 70 countries and that the Americas, Europe, and Asia are its key markets.)
In the hands of a crooked government, sophisticated speech and face recognition tools would prove useful for tracking down political dissidents and building biometric databases on activists or probing investigative journalists. SpeechPro says, for that reason, it only works with “trusted law enforcement agencies.” However, the company has been accused of selling to brutal authoritarian security agencies in countries like Kazakhstan, Belarus, Thailand, and Uzbekistan. And it’s likely human rights groups will be anxious to hear that Ecuador has now been added to the list, given that the country’s authorities have a less than sparkling record when it comes to corruption, accountability, and abuse of powers.
Ecuador has made international headlines frequently this year, but not for its procurement of advanced surveillance and security tech. The country has found itself at the center of a continuing diplomatic stand-off with Britain after granting WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange asylum in its London embassy. Somewhat ironically, Assange recently co-authored a book, Cypherpunks, arguing that mass surveillance is spiralling out of control largely due to the technology becoming more affordable for poorer nations. In implementing a countrywide face and voice recognition system, Ecuador is providing more evidence that adds weight to Assange’s thesis.