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UK National Crime Agency to create database of voice recordings to identify suspects

Civil liberties and privacy groups already fear the latest move would create “yet another state-held library” without “clear rules.”

Britain’s National Crime Agency, often referred to the UK’s “FBI”, is working to build a database of voice recordings that can be pieced together to create a unique voice “fingerprint”.

The database, much like the fingerprint database, will be used to match against potential suspects’ voice recordings from crime scenes.

According to Britain’s Mail on Sunday paper, law enforcement officers cold even use data taken from smart home speakers like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant to see if the voice recordings match against any criminal suspects. This was denied by an NCA spokesperson.

There’s no doubt the system will prove to be controversial – even more, perhaps, than the current facial recognition technology that’s been tried in the UK. The facial recognition scheme has shown poor results so far.

Civil liberties and privacy groups already fear the latest move would create “yet another state-held library” without “clear rules.”

The UK’s use of mass surveillance system has already been challenged by human rights groups.

NCA bosses have already begun the process of collecting data for voice analytics, the report says, as well as preparing to address both the technological and moral challenges that the technology is going to face.

The report details how a senior NCA officer told the Biometrics and Forensics Ethics Group – a think-tank advisory group that advises the Home Office – that the new voice fingerprint scheme had “significant potential for improving public safety and security”.

The group compared that new technology to that of facial recognition and suggested that it will likely be seen as similar to face recognition tech, pending research about public opinion into the scheme.

The NCA is looking at how to make the new controversial scheme “legally compliant and publicly acceptable”.

Last year, it was discovered that HM Revenue & Customs, Britain’s tax authority, had been storing at least five million taxpayers’ unique voice recordings without obtaining their consent. As it was a breach of the EU’s GDPR laws, HMRC was forced to ordered to delete the database.

The first indication about the new scheme was found though a job advert for the NCA, paying employees £20 ($25) per hour to work on the program.

“Voice Analytics (VA) system will allow the creation of a library of voiceprints,” the job advert read. “The base technology is engrained in day-to-day life (Alexa, Siri, etc.) of the public.”

The job would involve workers 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.”

Silkie Carlo, director of civil liberties organization Big Brother Watch (the group that exposed the HMRC voice recording scandal earlier in the year) – told Britain’s Mail on Sunday paper: “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.”

Professor Paul Wiles, the UK’s Biometrics Commissioner, told the paper there needed to be “clear rules”, saying: ‘It is crucial to maintain public trust in what the police are doing.’

An NCA spokesman said that the project “remains at a very early stage”, 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.

“A recent job advert… which was posted by an external recruitment agency, was incorrect to suggest the role included work on home devices,” the spokesperson said.

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