Privacy SOS

Technology to spoof human voices has been around for over fifteen years

Over at Free Future, Jay Stanley explores some of the potential problems with large corporations and governments creating giant "voice print" databases, to track or identify us by the sounds of our voices. One of the problems, besides privacy, is security. How can we be sure someone won't spoof our voice, and thereby get access to our bank account or our social security number? "It's not clear how easy it would be to spoof or otherwise defeat voiceprint systems," Stanley writes.

That might be true for the common criminal, but the technology to accurately spoof a voice has been around for at least fifteen years.

From the Washington Post in 1999:

"Gentlemen! We have called you together to inform you that we are going to overthrow the United States government." So begins a statement being delivered by Gen. Carl W. Steiner, former Commander-in-chief, U.S. Special Operations Command.

At least the voice sounds amazingly like him.

But it is not Steiner. It is the result of voice "morphing" technology developed at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

By taking just a 10-minute digital recording of Steiner's voice, scientist George Papcun is able, in near real time, to clone speech patterns and develop an accurate facsimile. Steiner was so impressed, he asked for a copy of the tape.

Steiner was hardly the first or last victim to be spoofed by Papcun's team members. To refine their method, they took various high quality recordings of generals and experimented with creating fake statements. One of the most memorable is Colin Powell stating "I am being treated well by my captors."

Engineer Papcun's voice spoofing technology opened up a world of possibility to the US military, according to the Post.

Pentagon planners started to discuss digital morphing after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Covert operators kicked around the idea of creating a computer-faked videotape of Saddam Hussein crying or showing other such manly weaknesses, or in some sexually compromising situation. The nascent plan was for the tapes to be flooded into Iraq and the Arab world.

The tape war never proceeded, killed, participants say, by bureaucratic fights over jurisdiction, skepticism over the technology, and concerns raised by Arab coalition partners.

According to the report, the Pentagon ultimately passed on the technology. But Hollywood was interested. And that was fifteen years ago.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.