Voiceprints May Become The World’s Next Most-Harvested Piece Of Data

photo by Chris Campbell via Flickr

Biometrics are intelligence organizations’ new goldmine for harvesting personally identifiable information.

In a post-Snowden leak world, most are aware that government organizations worldwide are harvesting people’s private data–or at least data that people once perceived to be private.

Since then, not much has changed in regard to government intelligence-gathering methods, and with the rise of biometrics (i.e. security methods using voice recognition, retina scans, and fingerprint readers) the next new wave of frequently harvested data will be a person’s own voice.

Government-harvested voiceprints

Biometrics, though an age-old (think fingerprinting) method of personal identification, have recently risen to prominence following the increased sophistication of voice recognition software.

As the number of  corporations, devices, and software using biometrics rises, so too does the amount of personally identifiable information that can be gleaned from them.

According to the Associated Press, as indicated by interviews with industry representatives and data from US and European records, about 65 million voiceprints are now available in corporate and government databases alike.

So why are both public and private sector institutions so eager to get their hands on a copy of your voice? Some current uses for harvested voiceprints include:

  • Tracking prisoners – since the 1990s, voiceprints have been used to track the activity of convicted offenders in the US
  • Combatting fraud – the Associated Press reports that both JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo quietly harvested voiceprints from their customer service calls to use as a resource in combatting bank fraud
  • Law enforcement – Mexico is one of the first countries to institute a nationwide voice harvesting system called VoiceGrid Nation. Using a software system which references a person’s voice with a comprehensive database, law enforcement agents are able to identify a target’s voice with an accuracy that SpeechPro claims is at least 90 percent.

So far Russia-based software developer Speech Technology Center, which uses the moniker SpeechPro in the US, is leading the pack in advanced voice-harvesting technology.

According to SpeechPro’s president in an interview with Slate, their technology is already being used on the state and federal level in the US as well as 70 other countries across the globe.

The concern

Despite the practical crime-fighting applications (i.e. combatting bank fraud and tracking criminals), the recent trend in harvesting the public’s voiceprints has prompted the scrutiny of activists and digital surveillance experts.

These groups warn that the rise of voiceprint harvesting could have a whole host of unforeseen consequences. According to them, some potential pitfalls to collecting the public’s voiceprints could be:

  • Compromising the integrity of anonymous hotlines – ACLU privacy expert Jay Stanley warns that the integrity of phone services like suicide, crime, and domestic violence hotlines could be compromised
  • Diminishing the public’s privacy – some experts, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, posit that voice sensors in public spaces could be used to pinpoint the location of people with great accuracy

The takeaway

If you’re at all put-off by the public and private sector’s recent trend in compiling samples of your voice, you may be in for some bad news.

As reported by the Associated Press, an analyst with Opus Research projects that the industry revenue for voice recognizing software will more than double in the next year from $400 million to $900 million.

Recently, New Zealand’s Internal Revenue Department even celebrated it’s 1 millionth voiceprint, making it the top voice biometric enrolled country per capita.

These trends, coupled with the rise in biometric security, may all but seal the deal in guaranteeing more harvesting to come.

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James Pero