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How a Chinese AI Giant Made Chatting—and Surveillance—Easy – carallumaactives-direct

How a Chinese AI Giant Made Chatting—and Surveillance—Easy


For the CCP, monitoring speech appears to be about more than censorship. “The collection of voice and video data assists with identifying people, networks, how people speak, what they care about, and what are the trends,” says Samantha Hoffman, an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Cyber Centre in Canberra.

iFlytek has patented a system that can sift through large volumes of audio and video in order to identify files that have been copied or reposted—part of an operation that the patent explains as “very important in information security and monitoring public opinion.” iFlytek responded that “analyzing audio and video data can have a number of potential applications, including identifying popular songs, detecting spam callers, etc.”

But iFlytek does enable security work. In 2012 the Ministry of Public Security purchased machines from iFlytek focused on intelligent voice technology. The ministry chose Anhui province, where iFlytek is headquartered, as one of the pilot locations for compiling a voice-pattern database—a catalog of people’s unique speech that would enable authorities to identify speakers by the sound of their voice.

The project relies on an iFlytek product called the Forensic Intelligent Audio Studio, a workstation that includes speakers, a microphone, and a desktop tower. The unit, which according to a 2016 local government procurement announcement sells for around $1,700, can identify people based on the unique characteristics of their voices. An iFlytek white paper uploaded online in 2013 touts voiceprint or speaker recognition as the “only biometric identification method that can be operated remotely,” noting that “in the defense field, voiceprint identification technology can detect whether there are key speakers in a telephone conversation and then track the content of the conversation.” The workstation can take a snippet of audio, compare it against the voices of 200 speakers, and pick out the person talking in under two seconds, according to the white paper.

Other countries also use voiceprint recognition for intelligence purposes. According to classified documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency has long used the tool to monitor terrorists and other targets. NSA analysts used speaker recognition, for example, to confirm the identities of Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, and Ayman al-Zawahiri in audio files, and the FBI has a research arm devoted to the technology. Nuance once sold a system called Nuance Identifier, which it said allowed law enforcement to “perform searches against millions of voiceprints within seconds.” The US Bureau of Prisons reportedly collects and stores prisoners’ voiceprints in order to monitor their phone calls.

In 2017, Human Rights Watch published a report detailing iFlytek’s government work. Maya Wang, a researcher with the rights group, says that the company’s tools are an essential part of the party’s plan to “build a digital totalitarian state”—a charge the company calls “baseless and absurd.” iFlytek’s voice biometric technologies make “tracking and identifying individuals possible,” Wang says. At some point, the noble effort to reclaim the Chinese language and ease communication became indistinguishable from one to control it.

The company, like many US tech firms, maintains that its technology is “end-use agnostic.”

iFlytek’s work has come under particular suspicion in regions that pose a threat to the party’s rule. One focus is greater Tibet, the culturally distinct part of western China where people have long fought for sovereignty. In Lhasa, iFlytek cofounded a lab at Tibet University that focuses on speech and information technology. The company says the goal of the lab is “the preservation and greater understanding of minority dialects and to help protect Tibetan culture.” The company also makes a Tibetan input app called Dungkar, which means “conch shell,” an auspicious symbol in Tibetan Buddhism.

According to Human Rights Watch, iFlytek’s technology appears to enable surveillance in Xinjiang, a region in northwest China populated by the predominantly Muslim Uighur minority group. In recent years, the Chinese government has tightened its grip on Uighurs, interning more than a million people in camps and farming out others to factories as forced labor. Residents have been made to install nanny apps on their phones, give biometric data at regular security checkpoints, and host cultural inspectors in their homes. In official materials, these inspectors are called, with no apparent hint of irony, “big sisters and big brothers.”

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