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Human Rights Watch raises privacy concerns over Chinese voice recognition program


China’s government is collecting “voice pattern” samples from its citizens to build a database for use with voice recognition technology, Human Rights Watch (HRW) announced in a fascinating article published Sunday.

In collaboration with Chinese company iFlytek, which HRW says makes 80 percent of the country’s speech recognition technology, China’s Ministry of Public Security is working on a pilot project to identify the voices of targeted individuals in telephone conversations.

“The Chinese government has been collecting the voice patterns of tens of thousands of people with little transparency about the program or laws regulating who can be targeted or how that information is going to be used,” said Sophie Richardson, HRW China director.

The government’s voice pattern database is small compared to its other biometric databases, according to HRW. Police had collected roughly 70,000 samples from one of the provinces in the pilot program by 2015, while authorities’ facial image database contains more than a billion individuals, and its DNA database includes some 40 million samples.

Chinese media has reported that an artificial intelligence technology called Automatic Speaker Recognition (ASR) has been used by law enforcement, and that it will be used for counterterrorism and “stability maintenance,” which HRW says indicates “the suppression of peaceful dissent.” The article details the roll-out of the voice pattern database, starting in 2012, and expanding to six provinces by 2016, including the restive Xinjiang province, where police are reported to have biometric collection quotas.

Biometric data collection and wiretapping are limited under Chinese law, though draft legislation would expand the legal conditions for biometrics collection, HRW reports. The rights group urges the Chinese authorities to review the relevant laws and procedures to ensure they are consistent with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the country has signed, but not ratified. It also urges companies involved to limit the use of collected data to the purpose consent was given for, and to test their systems’ accuracy transparently, according to industry standards.

The full article is available from Human Rights Watch.

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