China: Voice Biometric Collection Threatens Privacy
Police, AI Giant Collaboration in Legal Gray Area
The Chinese government is collecting “voice pattern” samples of individuals to establish a national voice biometric database, Human Rights Watch said today.Authorities are collaborating with iFlytek, a Chinese company that produces 80 percent of all speech recognition technology in the country, to develop a pilot surveillance system that can automatically identify targeted voices in phone conversations. Human Rights Watch wrote to iFlytek on August 2, 2017, asking about its business relationship with the Ministry of Public Security, the description on its website of a mass automated voice recognition and monitoring system it has developed, and whether it has any human rights policies. iFlytek has not responded.
“The Chinese government has been collecting the voice patterns of tens of thousands of people with little transparency about the program or laws regulating who can be targeted or how that information is going to be used,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “Authorities can easily misuse that data in a country with a long history of unchecked surveillance and retaliation against critics.”
The Chinese government has stepped up the use of biometric technology in recent years – including the construction of large-scale biometric databases – to bolster its existing mass surveillance and social control efforts. Compared with other biometric databases run by the police, the voice pattern database appears to be less established, with fewer samples in it. By 2015, police had collected 70,000 voice patterns in Anhui province, one of the main pilot provinces identified by the ministry for such collection. In comparison, national police databases have more than one billion faces and 40 million people’s DNA samples.
The collection of voice biometrics is part of the Chinese government’s drive to form a “multi-modal” biometric portrait of individuals and to gather ever more data about citizens. This voice biometric data is linked in police databases to the person’s identification number, which in turn can then be linked to a person’s other biometric and personal information on file, including their ethnicity, home address, and even their hotel records.
It is extremely difficult in China for individuals to remove such personal information, challenge its collection, or otherwise obtain redress for government surveillance. Unlike other types of biometric collection, such as fingerprinting or DNA sampling, individuals may not even realize their voice pattern has been collected, or that they are under surveillance.
Official tender documents and police reports suggest that police are collecting voice patterns together with other biometrics – fingerprints, palm prints, and profile photos, as well as urine and DNA samples – when they conduct “standardized” (标准化) and “integrated” (一体化) “information collection” (信息采集).Police officers can subject anyone suspected of “violating the law or committing crimes” (违法犯罪), including misdemeanors, to this treatment. In one case, for example, police collected the voice patterns of three women who were suspected of sex work – including two suspected of administrative offenses – as police filed the case in an Anhui county.
No public official policy documents attempt to justify the creation or use of such voice pattern databases, but academic articles by scientists who are leading their development state that its purpose is to help identify the speaker in voice materials collected during a crime. An artificial intelligence program, known as an Automatic Speaker Recognition (ASR) system, is used to speed up the matching process.
Government reports in the media claim that Automatic Speaker Recognition forensics have been used to match voice patterns to solve cases involving telecommunications fraud, drug trafficking, kidnapping, and blackmail. According to these same reports, it will also be applied for counterterrorism and “stability maintenance” purposes – terms authorities sometimes use to justify the suppression of peaceful dissent....MUCH MORE