Blown To Bits

Big Brother is Listening

Thursday, August 7th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

For reasons I can’t really explain, our standard metaphor for surveillance is the eye. Big Brother is watching. “Surveillance” itself means watching over.

But being listened to is probably more intrusive than being watched. What you say in your relaxed moments is a read-out of what is going on in your brain, revealing plans and abstract thoughts far better than watching your physical movements.

That’s why we worry so much about surveillance of email. But what about our normal bit stream, the one that comes out of our mouths rather than from our fingertips on the keyboard?

Voice recognition has been just around the corner for decades, but two recent stories suggest that the digital explosion is not only making it a reality, but poised to be a tool of public security — or oppression — ¬†almost immediately.

A story by Shai Oster and Gordon Fairclough in the Wall Street Journal yesterday reports that as part of its “security” preparations for the Olympics, China has equipped 70,000 taxis with microphones that can be turned on remotely. The Journal reports, “Security experts say there is little likelihood that all conversations in taxis are monitored.” That is doubtless correct, but remember what we say in Blown to Bits: “Computers will get powerful enough if you wait.”

Today’s New York Times has a glowing review of Dragon NaturallySpeaking, a PC voice recognition package. The reviewer, David Pogue, reports that it is extremely accurate even without training. It’s designed as office software, to transcribe dictation to Microsoft Word or to help RSI-afflicted computer users browse the Web. But the same technology could, of course, be used for other applications, such as the screening of 70,000 audio streams from taxis listening for conversations about Tibet or demonstrations. The review notes that this particular package is not unique in its accuracy.

Given the aggressiveness with which U.S. officials screen bits, even domestic emails, can there be any doubt that this country is considering large-scale automated eavesdropping?

And even if not, think of the corporate uses. Financial services firms already closely monitor email into and out of their buildings, looking for evidence of shady transactions. It would be such a boon to be able to listen in on every outside call placed by an employee …. Maybe even the only fiduciarily prudent thing to do, once it becomes feasible.

Bits are bits, and the limitation that only email bits are easily monitored is a temporary and rapidly fading inconvenience. Voice screening will soon be coming to a theater near you.

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