I was really angry to read this report in the Guardian.
A survey by the Associated Press of voice biometrics, the spoken equivalent of fingerprints, has found that the technology is already widely used. The AP estimated that more than 65 million voiceprints have been stored in corporate and government databases around the world.
The huge scale of take-up of the technology has surprised experts in digital surveillance. “This suggests there is a major new biometric tool that is being rolled out with very little public discussion,” said Jay Stanley, an expert on technology-related privacy issues at the American Civil Liberties Union.
He added that use of voiceprints by companies to counter fraud had its benefits, but that it came with costs. “Obviously fraud protection is a good thing, but it raises implications that need to be looked into.”
Among those implications is the potential that anonymity in speech could be threatened. Several phone services rely on guaranteeing privacy to callers – crime hotlines run by police, counselling services, and numbers that people who have suffered domestic violence or other abuse are encouraged to call in the knowledge that their identities will not be compromised, for instance.
Stanley said that if public confidence in such services were compromised, “We could lose a major avenue of anonymous speech.”
Lee Tien, senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that voice biometrics could be used to pinpoint the location of individuals. There is already discussion about placing voice sensors in public spaces, and Tien said that multiple sensors could be triangulated to identify individuals and specify their location within very small areas.
. . .
Several governments, led by Turkey where the mobile phone company Turkcell has stored voiceprints of 10 million people, have also leapt on the bandwagon.
For companies, the big attraction of voiceprints is to be able to follow consumers as they move from one store or part of a store to another, and between commercial channels.
There's more at the link.
The reasons for my anger are threefold.
- This is, like so many other invasions of our privacy, being carried out in 'stealth mode'. I haven't given any organization permission to 'harvest' my voice print. If an official agency wants my fingerprints, they either have to have legal grounds to get them (e.g. a law enforcement agency during the arrest process) or must ask me to provide them as part of an official procedure (e.g. applying for employment where fingerprints are part of a required background check). In the latter instance, I have the right to refuse to provide them (albeit at the cost of ending the official procedure right there, and losing any employment or benefits I might otherwise gain). With voice prints, they're being taken without so much as a "by your leave". Those doing it might argue that it's not illegal to do so - but why not? Why should it be legal to invade my privacy in this fashion?
- This poses very great security risks. If your voice activates certain accounts or benefits (see the linked Associated Press survey for examples), and a scammer or felon is able to obtain a recording of you speaking the activation phrase or password, he or she can access them at will. As voice synthesizers become more sophisticated, it may even become possible to duplicate your voice saying them using only a non-related voice print. You'll have little or no recourse against crimes committed in that way, because when you sign up for such services the small print of the contract all too often makes you solely responsible for securing your means of access (e.g. password, PIN, voice print, etc.). Worse, if what you're accessing is a data storage system such as voicemails, etc., Big Brother can do precisely the same thing to snoop on you and what you're doing. Imagine what this means for investigative journalists or whistleblowers. Their voices can now be precisely identified, so any hope of privacy or confidentiality is blown out of the water.
- Think of what this could mean in the hands of unscrupulous officials. We know, for example, that in the former Soviet Union the security services could (and did) routinely manufacture evidence to convict human rights activists and others of offenses, sending them to prison and removing them from circulation. What's to stop that happening again - only this time using voice synthesizers to duplicate the activists' voice prints, ensuring that the 'evidence' produced in court is almost impossible to disprove? In these United States, where it seems many law enforcement agencies now consider themselves above the law, what's to stop them doing precisely that to their critics? When the Justice Department itself, and so many of its agencies, are embroiled in so many questionable activities, and when the IRS is used as a political weapon against opponents of the Administration (which appears to be a long-standing tradition), this is hardly a far-fetched idea. What if politically-motivated investigations could 'manufacture' voice-print-based evidence to smear (if not convict) their targets?
I haven't even touched on the invasion of privacy involved when stores 'follow' my voice around their premises and use their accumulated information about me to try to inveigle me into spending more money. I regard that as completely unacceptable, and if I find it happening I'll instantly blacklist that store as far as any future purchases are concerned.
I suspect the manufacturers of voice modulators (both hardware and software) are going to be doing a land-office business before long. Such devices may soon be the only way to preserve even a modicum of digital privacy and security, particularly for journalists and whistleblowers. Will we now see attempts by Big Brother to regulate and control the sale of such products?