A new document has been released from the hoard of government documents from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden that shows new revelations about how the Nation Security Agency has been changing voice calls to text for almost a decade. The rough transcripts being created allow NSA to easily store and search the content in phone conversations.
The documents from Snowden were published Tuesday by The Intercept, and show that the NSA and its British version GCHQ have and still are financing in technology that exchanges news reports and phone calls in foreign languages to English. A 2008 GCHQ document stolen by Snowden shows that British Intelligence has been using the technology for five years, and that the NSA has been doing so for at least a decade. Attempts at speech recognition were first made by the NSA with Dragon, which is a commercially available program, eventually they moved onto software know as RHINEHEART.
The problem with the speech recognition programs that the agency was using was their inability to translate into English, languages such as Farsi. The new documents reveal that NSA developed software which is basically tantamount to “Google for Voice”. The technology allows the NSA to process large amounts of data and to process that data automatically with out the need for humans. The system supplies a rough but keyword searchable transcription.
Examples of the use of speech recognition being used in Afghanistan, Iraq, and in some Latin American countries were provided in the documents from Snowden. It is unknown how often these methods were used in programs that collect large amount of conversations of people, which includes citizens of the U.S. and people who live in this country.
Listening in on International phone calls has always been a part of NSA surveillance, but the law required an actual person to listen in, limiting the amount of calls that were listened heard. This new technology makes it much easier for them to listen in mass. The release of more documents by Snowden reveals that not only are digital communications like e-mail not private, but now what people say is not private either.
All of this happened with no legislation from congress, no oversight, or hearings on the matter. The new proposed surveillance bill, the USA Freedom Act, which is under debate by congress does not even address these issues. The bill would only end a NSA program that does not even gather voice data. If the bill is passed it still leaves many methods to gather up large amount of phone calls and texts of people who are innocent in the U.S. and around the world.
The Intercept contacted civil liberty experts who said the type of abilities shown in the new documents from Snowden, are examples of evasion of privacy. Without oversight questions of how it will be used, and the possibility of being able to store all phone calls, change them to text, and search the content of those calls made by American citizen is concerning. The NSA may not be doing it now, but eventually they will be able to.
Executive director of the Stilwell Center for Advance Studies in Science and Technology Policy, Kim Taipale, tried to get policymakers to realize that current surveillance laws do not do enough to deal with global communication networks and new technologies that include speech recognition. Taipale told The Intercept that many things that were non-lasting in the analog world are permanent now. That we need rules that will deal with the consequence of that. She went on to discuss that we may have to live with the ability of the government to search voice communications in mass in some circumstances, but we need rules that are clear, effective oversight that makes sure the data is used only for the right law enforcement agency, and national security purpose, but that still abide by the Constitution.
In response to the documents released by Snowden, that reveal new information, NSA spokesperson Vanee Vines responded in an e-mail to The Intercept that the NSA uses many different technologies to intercept data to protect U.S. citizen from those who seek to do harm.
By Jessica Hamel
Photo by Martin Cathrae- Creativecommons flickr License