Terror alert puts spotlight on voiceprint technology

By Raphael G. Satter
Associated Press / October 6, 2010

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LONDON — Did their voices betray them? The discovery of an alleged terror plot against Europe owes at least some of its success to voiceprint technology that allows law enforcement to match electronically a voice to its owner.

The technique, which some compare to fingerprinting, can be a powerful antiterror tool, officials increasingly believe. Law enforcement agencies are already considering how a voice database could help thwart plots.

The reported plot against European cities, in which suspects allegedly spoke of a Mumbai-style shooting spree, has triggered travel warnings and refocused attention on Al Qaeda activities on the PakistanAfghanistan border, where several of the voices were recorded.

The British eavesdropping agency GCHQ deployed voice identification software to help uncover the plot, which officials say has targeted Germany, Britain, and France.

“Advances in these types of technology have been key in thwarting plots and catching suspects,’’ a British government official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of his work.

Despite progress made in quashing the plot, officials speak of an ongoing threat.

Police in southern France arrested 12 suspects in sweeps yesterday against suspected Islamic militant networks, including three men being checked for links to a network recruiting fighters for Afghanistan.

Developers of voice biometric technology say it can be more useful than traditional fingerprint analysis in fighting terror.

“You have potential for there to be a larger database for criminals’ voices than their fingerprints. What are the chances that you’ll get a foreign terrorist’s fingerprint versus a foreign terror suspect’s voiceprint?’’ said Germano Di Mambro, who runs Porticus Technology Inc. of Wellesley.

Supporters point to several other high-profile successes in voiceprinting. Colombian drug kingpin Juan Carlos Ramirez Abadia, who used plastic surgery and multiple aliases to dodge authorities, was arrested in 2007 after the US Drug Enforcement Agency matched his voice to a tape recording previously made by Colombian authorities.

But academics in the field of speech processing have urged caution.

In a 2003 paper presented to a conference in Geneva, several specialists warned that there was no scientific way of identifying a person’s voice with absolute certainty. Frederic Bimbot, one of the authors, said the term “voiceprinting’’ is a misnomer because it suggests that the technique is as reliable as fingerprinting.

Unlike a persons’ prints, voices are highly variable — changing according to age, health, and emotional state, he said. top stories on Twitter

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