Coming To A Surveillance State Near You: Lip-Reading Computers
from the I'm-sorry-Dave,-you-can't-say-that dept
One of the most famous — and important — scenes in Stanley Kubrick’s film “2001” is when the two astronauts sit in a space pod in order to avoid being overheard by the ship’s computer, HAL, which they believe may represent a threat to their lives. Although they have prudently turned off the pod’s communication system, what they don’t realize is that HAL is able to follow their conversation by lip-reading, and hence is alerted to their disconnection plans.
Although it is unlikely that the Turkish authorities were inspired by the film, the following incident, reported by Politico.eu in a post on the growing censorship in the country, reminds us that the use of lip-reading for surveillance purposes is not science fiction:
Last week, at the funeral of a solider in Osmaniye, south-eastern Turkey, mourners voiced anger at the government’s decision to commit troops to conflict with PKK forces in the south-east, leading to several arrests.
Veli Ağbaba, deputy president of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), and his colleagues visited two suspects in prison, and have stated that they were arrested on charges of “insulting the president” after footage of the funeral was scrutinized by lip-reading experts.
Calling in lip-reading experts to check whether somebody was insulting the President of Turkey at a funeral might seem a one-off product of an increasingly-paranoid security apparatus. Moreover, using humans is a surveillance technique that doesn’t really scale — unlike metadata analysis, say — so you might hope this is unlikely to be a problem for most of us. But it turns out that we are very close to building real lip-reading HALs. Here’s a 2014 article from The Week:
A Jordanian scientist has created an automated lip-reading system that can decipher speech with an average success rate of 76 per cent. The findings, in conjunction with recent advances in the fields of computer vision, pattern recognition, and signal processing, suggest that computers will soon be able to read lips accurately enough to raise questions about privacy and security.
Moore’s Law and other advances in computing pretty much guarantee that 76 percent success rate will rise inexorably, until high-accuracy lip-reading becomes a standard feature for CCTV surveillance systems, especially as very high-resolution cameras fall in price and are deployed more widely. HAL would be proud.