"Voice Biometrics": The first circle of Hell

By Mark Ames , written on March 22, 2015

From The News Desk

“This was really something quite new — tracing a criminal by his voice-print. So far there had been only fingerprints, a science which had taken a long time to develop. Now there was to be a new technique of 'voice-printing' and it had to be invented in a matter of days.” —Solzhenitsyn, “In The First Circle” 

If you can think of something truly horrible and dystopian, then it's a safe bet that it's already a VC-backed tech industry, doubling in size every year.

This time, it’s “voiceprint” technology — companies and governments storing human “voice prints” as unique and efficient for surveillance purposes as fingerprints, and now an industry that’s expected to nearly double in size by next year to nearly $1 billion in annual revenues. An industry that boasts of storing 65 million human voice prints in corporate and government databases here and in Europe - and that's while it's still in its infancy.

I learned all of this from a stunning AP report from late last year, but which I only read properly recently. It's titled  "Voiceprints being harvested by the millions":

“Their technology measures the characteristics of a person's speech as air is expelled from the lungs, across the vocal folds of the larynx, up the pharynx, over the tongue, and out through the lips, nose, and teeth. Typical speaker recognition software compares those characteristics with data held on a server. If two voiceprints are similar enough, the system declares them a match.”

The article focuses mostly on how voiceprints are used for positive security purposes — citing Barclays using a new voiceprint identification program for its wealthy clients, which it now plans to expand to all of its 12 million clients.

Already, according to the AP, at least 65 million human voiceprints have been collected “by governments and corporations” in the US and Europe. From there the article merely hints at how menacing its uses are, and can yet become:

“In the US, law enforcement officials use the technology to monitor inmates and track offenders who have been paroled.”

But the AP’s imagination fails it thereafter, as it quotes some Irish privacy activist worrying that, in the frightening dystopia of the future,

"'It's more mass surveillance,' said Sadhbh McCarthy, an Irish privacy researcher. 'The next thing you know, that will be given to border guards, and you'll need to speak into a microphone when you get back from vacation.'"

Which only tells us one thing: for western Europeans, nothing could be scarier than returning home from a happy seaside vacation, and rather than getting complimented on your grotesque new tan, you’re ordered to speak into a microphone.

The last time I read about someone trying to create “voice-print” technology was in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel “In The First Circle”. And, I have to say, in Solzhenitsyn's GULAG memoir, the stakes are a bit higher than a spoiled vacation.

"In The First Circle" is about a comparatively cozy VIP-level GULAG set up as an R&D center, whose inmates — cryptographers, mathematicians, linguists — are tasked with inventing encrypted voice scramblers for The Boss, Stalin; and a “voice print” reader to help Stalin’s secret police identify people from wiretapped, recorded phone calls. In this case, a Soviet foreign service officer who turns whistleblower, making an anonymous call from a Moscow phone booth to warn a Soviet scientist about impending danger (in the newer unexpurgated edition, the whistleblower calls the US Embassy in Moscow to leak information about American spies handing atomic bomb secrets to the Russians).

As the Soviet whistleblower, Volodin, prepares to make the call that will eventually destroy his life, he asks himself:

“If you telephoned from a box, could you possibly be identified? If you wasted no time, if you left as soon as you had finished? Could they recognize a muffled voice over the telephone? Surely they couldn't - there was no such technique.”

It turns out that Stalin’s secret police are working on such a technique, and the recording of this phone call speeds up its debut. The voice-print device in “First Circle” is called a “VISP” — for “visual speech” — and is described during a visit to the special GULAG camp by a top police official:

“In these voice-prints speech is measured simultaneously in three dimensions: in frequency — across the tape, in time — along the tape, and in volume — by the density of the trace. By this means each sound is recorded as a unique shape that can be easily identified. Whatever has been said can be read off the tape. the VISP apparatus. It was designed in our laboratory.”

The VISP is hardly ready when Stalin’s police demand it, but the mathematicians and scientists in the GULAG camp know that they need to lie and stretch things out, otherwise they’ll be demoted into the lower circles of the GULAG Hell — Vyatka, Magadan, Vorkuta... . So they rig the demonstration, which keeps them in the VIP GULAG longer. But it also means they have a limited amount of time to identify the whistleblower whose voice recording awaits the VISP machine.

It's hard not to compare the choices they had to make in Solzhenitsyn's semi-autobiographical novel, to our brave techtopian present, in which we have a thriving “voice biometrics” industry, Stalin’s dream come true... only in our era, voice-print technology serves the market, not Stalin. So it's cool.

For the inmates at the Mavrino GULAG, the question they grapple with is whether to save your life, or save your soul. Some, like the cryptographer-mathematician Nerzhin (based on Solzhenitsyn), choose their conscience. It’s a far cry from the pampered cypherpunk rebels of today, who bloviate about how much it pains them to live off US Department of Defense six-figure grants, but can't find the strength to turn that money down.

When Nerzhin-Solzhenitsyn makes up his mind not to help the Soviet police build surveillance and encryption technologies, he understands the consequences:

His refusal to join the cryptographic group was not a mere incident in his professional career but a turning-point in his life. It was certain to result, and perhaps very soon, in a long and grueling journey to Siberia or to the Arctic, where he would either die or survive only after a hard struggle with death.

He wanted to think about this sudden break in his life. What had he managed to achieve during his three-years breathing space in the special prison? Had he been able to steel himself enough to face the ordeal of being thrown back into the abyss of the camps? In the end, another character, Rubin — a true believer Soviet Marxist, despite being imprisoned — succeeds to some degree in using the faulty VISP technology to help the KGB narrow down their list of suspected whistleblowers to two suspects — one of whom is the real whistleblower, one who is innocent. The prisoner-cryptographer and his camp guard officer in charge of their laboratory revel in their success:

Already they could see the day when an elaborate organization, similar to that for fingerprinting, would exist: a central register, with the recorded voices of all who had ever been suspected. Every criminal's talk would be filed and the villain caught as surely as the burglar whose prints are on the safe.

Ah, irony of market-ironies, that day has now arrived. And with it, the inevitable horrors. Such as Rubin’s horror when he realizes that the KGB doesn’t give a shit about science, guilt or innocence — they have now two suspects, that’s all they care about—they’re both going to be arrested now.

“But one of them is innocent!” cried Rubin. “Innocent? What d'you mean?” [The KGB officer’s] green eyes opened wide in astonishment. “Not guilty of anything at all? The security service will sort that one out.” As the KGB officer storms out with his two suspects’ names for arrest, Rubin rationalizes his collaboration by convincing himself he’d saved the other three suspects.

I’m not a huge Solzhenitsyn fan — for GULAG literature, nothing comes close to Varlam Shalamov — but “First Circle” is a great novel that holds up well: bitter, merciless, at times almost Gogol-like in its painful, hopeless comedy. His chapters featuring Stalin are the best Solzhenitsyn ever wrote. I’ll quote just one scene — when the head of the KGB Abakumov, terrified and dizzy with fear, meets Stalin in the late hours of the night for his monthly report.

Abakumov knows what Stalin wants to hear, and delivers it to him — reports of terrorists and saboteurs being rounded up, prison camps filled and appropriately harsh, students worshipping their great leader. . . . When he’s sure the conversation has gone well and Stalin is not going to purge him like so many before him, Abakumov takes a load off, and decides to broach the one subject that’s been eating at him: He wants Stalin to restore the death penalty in the Soviet Union, which Stalin had abolished shortly after the end of the war, in a “momentary impulse to show off to the West,” something Stalin already regretted. So Stalin, being Stalin, decides to fuck with his KGB chief Abakumov:

As Stalin switched his gaze from the bright prospect of the future back to Abakumov, his eyes narrowed cunningly: “Aren't you afraid, though, that you might be one of the first to be shot?”
Spoken like a mute unstressed cadence, the word “shot” was scarcely audible, a hint so obvious that it wanted no articulation. But it made Abakumov's blood turn to ice. Stalin was standing only a little more than an arm's length away from him and watching his Minister intently to see how he took this joke. At a loss whether to sit or stand, Abakumov half rose to his feet, his knees quivering with strain as he did so.
“Marshal, I... if I deserve it... if you have to...”
Stalin gave him a hard, penetrating stare. He was quietly considering the thought that had inevitably crossed his mind about Abakumov — hadn't the time perhaps come to get rid of him? Stalin was well aware of when to make use of that most ancient of devices for winning popularity: first lash the executioners into a fury of activity, then disown them at the critical moment and punish then for an excess of zeal. He had often done this before and it had never failed. The day was bound to come when Abakumov, too, would have to suffer the same fate.
“Correct!” said Stalin, with a smile of approval as though rewarding Abakumov for his presence of mind. “When you deserve it, we'll shoot you.”
Obedient to a gesture from his Leader, Abakumov sat down again.

Luckily for us, we don’t have to worry about a larger-than-life tyrant like Stalin — just Stalin’s voice-print machines recording and storing our voice prints. What could possibly go wrong?