Britain’s National Crime Agency is secretly working on a database of voice recordings to facilitate the apprehension of criminals, reports The Mail on Sunday.
The audio library is being developed so that suspects can be identified by their unique “voiceprint”, with recordings captured at crime scenes or via undercover surveillance and compared with samples on file.
The system is reportedly similar to the controversial facial recognition technology already being used to catch criminals.
According to the report, even data gleaned from smart home speakers like Amazon’s Alexa might be made use of to check speech patterns against those of known criminals.
According to the information, law enforcement agencies are already quietly recruiting intelligence officers for the Voice Analytics scheme. Details pertaining to the clandestine voice analysis project first surfaced through a job advert that was recruiting a £20-an-hour intelligence officer to work on the scheme at the NCA’s headquarters in Vauxhall, South London. It read:
“Voice Analytics (VA) system will allow the creation of a library of voiceprints. The base technology is ingrained in the day-to-day life (Alexa, Siri, etc.) of the public.”
The officer would be tasked with drafting applications to “carry out covert and other activity for the purpose of intelligence gathering” and creating “products for evidential or intelligence purposes or to inform operational, tactical or strategic decision-making”.
Heightened privacy concerns
As in the case with facial recognition technology, privacy and civil liberties groups fear the latest project involving a voice analysis system, might build “yet another state-held library” without “clear rules”.
Silkie Carlo, director of the civil liberties group Big Brother Watch told The Mail on Sunday:
“We’re alarmed by the secret creation of yet another state-held library of people’s voiceprints. This raises serious and urgent questions that the NCA must answer.Voice analytics lack a convincing legal basis, evidence basis, or any oversight in the UK.”
The publication quotes an NCA spokesman saying last night that the project is still in its early stages, adding:
“All development work is also being managed in conjunction with appropriate regulatory bodies and law enforcement partners to consider what oversight of voice analytics would be required to ensure any work would be ethical, legally compliant and publicly acceptable.”
Members of the UK Government advisory group said the ethical considerations were similar to those surrounding facial recognition, with one observing “research pertaining to public opinion on voice capture needs to be undertaken”.
There has been growing concern over the use by police of facial recognition to scan crowds in order to target known criminals.
But along with the advent of voice assistants, from Siri and Google Assistant to Facebook Portal and Amazon Alexa, consumers are concerned that voice assistants are eavesdropping on them, as they are opt-in by default.
Those recordings are stored in the device’s app along with other information from your Google or Amazon accounts.
Although it's a critical feature for the machine learning process of voice assistants, consumers are wary that this technology presents a privacy concern rather than simply being a tool for improvement.
As an example of the possible fallout from such practices, it emerged last year that HM Revenue & Customs had stored five million taxpayers’ unique “voiceprints” without asking for their consent and was forced to delete the huge database.