Sunday, May 10, 2015

Can you hear me now?

The Intercept had a story last week on the state of speech processing capabilities within the SIGINT community (Dan Froomkin, "The Computers are Listening: How the NSA Converts Spoken Words Into Searchable Text," Intercept, 5 May 2015):
Top-secret documents from the archive of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden show the National Security Agency can now automatically recognize the content within phone calls by creating rough transcripts and phonetic representations that can be easily searched and stored.

The documents show NSA analysts celebrating the development of what they called “Google for Voice” nearly a decade ago.

Though perfect transcription of natural conversation apparently remains the Intelligence Community’s “holy grail,” the Snowden documents describe extensive use of keyword searching as well as computer programs designed to analyze and “extract” the content of voice conversations, and even use sophisticated algorithms to flag conversations of interest.

The documents include vivid examples of the use of speech recognition in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in Latin America. But they leave unclear exactly how widely the spy agency uses this ability, particularly in programs that pick up considerable amounts of conversations that include people who live in or are citizens of the United States.

Spying on international telephone calls has always been a staple of NSA surveillance, but the requirement that an actual person do the listening meant it was effectively limited to a tiny percentage of the total traffic. By leveraging advances in automated speech recognition, the NSA has entered the era of bulk listening.
It does not appear to be practical yet for NSA and its partners to capture and process into searchable (and permanently storable) text all the speech that passes through the SIGINT system.

Still, it is clear that the intelligence community's ability to process speech is rapidly growing.

None of this should come as a surprise if you've been paying attention, of course.

CSE and its Five Eyes partners have been working on computer speech recognition, and related technologies such as speaker identification, for a long, long time.

And some of us on the outside have been worrying—the less charitable might say panicking—about the potential privacy implications of such technologies for nearly as long:

“CSE's interest in high-tech devices that help locate specific conversations and documents is a clear indication the five-member alliance collects and sifts large volumes of civilian traffic, said Bill Robinson, a researcher in Waterloo, Ont., who has long studied the spy agencies. "This technology is needed to process vast communications streams when you're hunting for nuggets within it." Mr. Robinson said the devices have legitimate uses, but hold "potentially frightening" implications for people's privacy as the technology advances. "They'll be able to do things they never could've done in the past.”” (Jim Bronskill, "High-tech snooping tools developed for spy agency," Vancouver Sun, 24 May 1999)

“Mr. Robinson says that while the federal government last year appointed a commissioner to oversee the CSE, he remains concerned that the SIGINT system as it sweeps through global, civilian communications could pose a threat, perhaps inadvertently, to the privacy of Canadians. "Not that the government is systematically monitoring citizens, but it's risky when the capabilities are developing to do that," he says.” (Peter Hum, "I spy," Ottawa Citizen, 10 May 1997)

“Since 1989, the CSE has awarded three contracts worth $1.1 million to a Montreal firm to make machines that can quickly isolate key words and phrases from millions of signals CSE monitors each day, CTV reported Sunday [based on Access to Information requests made by me]. “It’s frightening,” says Bill Robinson…. “It has Orwellian potential to sweep through everybody’s conversations. As computers get faster and faster, theoretically one would be able to keep records of all conversations.”” (“Spy agency works on eavesdropping device for phones, fax,” Ottawa Citizen, 31 January 1994)

Those capabilities don't appear to be here quite yet.

But they're a whole lot closer than they were 20 years ago.

Update 11 May 2015:

Follow-on story from The Intercept (Dan Froomkin, "The Computers are Listening: Speech Recognition is NSA’s Best-Kept Open Secret," Intercept, 11 May 2015):
It’s not surprising that the NSA isn’t talking about [speech recognition]. But oddly enough, neither is anyone else: Over the years, there’s been almost no public discussion of the NSA’s use of automated speech recognition.

One minor exception was in 1999, when a young Australian cryptographer named Julian Assange stumbled across an NSA patent that mentioned “machine transcribed speech.”

Assange, who went on to found WikiLeaks, said at the time: “This patent should worry people. Everyone’s overseas phone calls are or may soon be tapped, transcribed and archived in the bowels of an unaccountable foreign spy agency.”

Update 12 May 2015:

See also Allan Lawrence's 1984 speech to the House of Commons.

Update 8 June 2015:

More from The Intercept (Dan Froomkin, "The Computers Are Listening: NSA Won’t Say If It Automatically Transcribes American Phone Calls in Bulk," Intercept, 8 June 2015).


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Michael And Ingrid Heroux

You're right, that is the holly grail. With the new super computers especially quantum computing I think they are there already. They will never let the media know how advanced their computing technology is. They purchase their quantum processor chips right here in Burnaby B.C. and they probably insert them into fully functional quantum systems decades in the making. Also, when you here about 1.1 million to a Montreal firm you have to think that is poultry. It is probably more like 1.1 billion, it is a wonder they would even let people like Snowden come even close to that information. I wouldn't even trust my closest allies with some of the stuff Snowden was privy to. Makes me wonder.

We tried out the Blogger platform and we really like it. Google has a great blogging platform and it if free.

We are from London Ontario ourselves. Thanks

May 10, 2015 7:36 pm  

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