Russian Voice Recognition Abroad

A few months ago I covered this bit of mass surveillance tech: voice recognition systems that would automatically identify the speaker in an otherwise anonymous recorded conversation.

Though some people questioned whether it could be done on a mass scale, it appears the system is indeed being used for that — publicly in Mexico, and likely elsewhere in North America as well.

In short: the minute you open your mouth, there is no such thing as an “anonymous” cell phone. Or any phone. Or SIP call. Or radio transmission, “breaker breaker” won’t help you here. (Homework assignment for the aetherically inclined: CB radio on your next car trip. Even if it’s “beneath you,” they’re tons of fun.)

It happens that the development on this technology began over 40 years ago. Many of the scientists and engineers that developed it had no choice: the development was done by workers in a KGB-run gulag for the technically adept.

The development of this technology was even described by Solzhenitsyn in his book, “In the First Circle.” So we really have no excuse for being surprised…

“The world leader in voice recognition technology goes by two names. In the company’s home city of Saint Petersburg, it’s known as the Speech Technology Center, or STC. In the United States, it operates from its New York City offices under the name SpeechPro. The anodyne names betray no signs that the company’s origins trace to a secret Soviet technologies unit run under the auspices of the KGB — and developed inside the Stalin-era Gulag system of convict labor camps.

The company’s roots didn’t grow in a hard labor camp — as the Gulag is most notoriously known — but at a related prison for engineers and scientists known as the Sharashka Marfino. There, researchers and engineers plucked from various camps were forced to work identifying voices calling in to foreign embassies located in Moscow.

“Our Center was founded in 1990,” Sergei Koval, a leading STC analyst, told us. “Before that all of our employees worked in the applied acoustics unit — a department that was run by the KGB, but formally attached to the scientific development center of the Ministry for Communications … The ‘Sharashka,’ where [seminal Russian novelist Alexander] Solzhenitsyn worked, was transferred from Moscow to Saint Petersburg. The people described in his novel [In the First Circle] continued to work in the Saint Petersburg outfit even after their release, and I met them when I came to work in the unit back in 1973.”

In 2010, the STC completed its first national voice recognition project — surprisingly not in Russia — but in Mexico. The system is able to use state records of human voice and biometric details to identify individuals from fragments of speech alone. […]

STC’s speech recognition tools are also at use inside the United States, Slate reported in September. Alexey Khitrov, STC Strategic Development Director, told the magazine that the company is working with a number of U.S. agencies at the state and federal level. They might want to ask about those ties to Putin.”

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