Authorities are collaborating with iFlytek, a Chinese company that produces 80 percent of all speech recognition technology in the country, to develop a pilot surveillance system that can automatically identify targeted voices in phone conversations. Human Rights Watch wrote to iFlytek on August 2, 2017, asking about its business relationship with the Ministry of Public Security, the description on its website of a mass automated voice recognition and monitoring system it has developed, and whether it has any human rights policies. iFlytek has not responded.
“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, China director. “Authorities can easily misuse that data in a country with a long history of unchecked surveillance and retaliation against critics.”
The Chinese government has stepped up the use of biometric technology in recent years – including the construction of large-scale biometric databases – to bolster its existing mass surveillance and social control efforts. Compared with other biometric databases run by the police, the voice pattern database appears to be less established, with fewer samples in it. By 2015, police had collected 70,000 voice patterns in Anhui province, one of the main pilot provinces identified by the ministry for such collection. In comparison, national police databases have more than one billion faces and 40 million people’s DNA samples.
The collection of voice biometrics is part of the Chinese government’s drive to form a “multi-modal” biometric portrait of individuals and to gather ever more data about citizens. This voice biometric data is linked in police databases to the person’s identification number, which in turn can then be linked to a person’s other biometric and personal information on file, including their ethnicity, home address, and even their hotel records.
It is extremely difficult in China for individuals to remove such personal information, challenge its collection, or otherwise obtain redress for government surveillance. Unlike other types of biometric collection, such as fingerprinting or DNA sampling, individuals may not even realize their voice pattern has been collected, or that they are under surveillance.
Police officers can subject anyone suspected of “violating the law or committing crimes”, including misdemeanors, to this treatment. In one case, for example, police collected the voice patterns of three women who were suspected of sex work – including two suspected of administrative offenses – as police filed the case in an Anhui county.
No public official policy documents attempt to justify the creation or use of such voice pattern databases, but academic articles by scientists who are leading their development state that its purpose is to help identify the speaker in voice materials collected during a crime. An artificial intelligence program, known as an Automatic Speaker Recognition (ASR) system, is used to speed up the matching process.
Government reports in the media claim that Automatic Speaker Recognition forensics have been used to match voice patterns to solve cases involving telecommunications fraud, drug trafficking, kidnapping, and blackmail. According to these same reports, it will also be applied for counterterrorism and “stability maintenance” purposes – terms authorities sometimes use to justify the suppression of peaceful dissent.
As the government weaves a tightened web of surveillance, there are more ways ordinary citizens can get caught for criticizing the government, as well as for mobilizing and organizing for social change. There have been documented cases in which activists and netizens have been sentenced for their peaceful expression on communication tools, including on social media applications like WeChat.
The government has stepped up efforts to enforce “real-name registration” requirements for a range of services, including when purchasing mobile SIM cards, narrowing the space for anonymity and privacy. There are also cases in which activists are being tracked down by police when they travel on trains, as the authorities require “real name registration” for this and other forms of public transportation. Authorities have also installed CCTV cameras in front of the residences of activists, intimidating and monitoring them.
Government collection or use of biometric data is not inherently illegal and has been justified at times as a permissible investigative tactic. But to meet international privacy standards enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which China has signed but not ratified, each government instance of collection, retention, and use of biometrics must be comprehensively regulated, narrow in scope, and necessary as well as proportionate to meeting a legitimate security goal.
Given the sensitivity of biometric data, government officials should not collect or use such information unless necessary for the investigation of serious crime, and not for minor offenses or administrative purposes such as tracking migrants. Both collection and use should be limited to people found to be involved in wrongdoing, and not broad populations who have no specific link to crime. Collection, use, and retention should never be based on a person’s sex, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, or religious, political, or other views. Individuals should have the right to know what biometric data the government holds on them.
Technology companies also have a human rights responsibility to ensure that their products and services do not contribute to human rights abuses, including violations of privacy and fair trial rights.
“Chinese authorities’ arsenal of surveillance tools just keeps getting bigger while privacy rights lag far behind,” Richardson said. “The Chinese authorities should immediately stop gathering highly sensitive biometric data until legal protections are clear – and clearly reliable.”
Voice Pattern Database; Automatic Speaker Recognition
In 2012, the Ministry of Public Security started the construction of a national voice pattern database and designated Anhui as one of the pilot provinces.
In 2014, the Anhui provincial police bureau issued an order to accelerate the database construction. Since then, police bureaus across that province have purchased voice pattern collection systems, based on official tender documents.
Similar purchases for voice pattern collection systems were also made in 2016 by the police bureaus in Xinjiang, a repressive region with 11 million ethnic minority Uyghurs, following the “Notice to Fully Carry Out the Construction of Three-Dimensional Portraits, Voice Pattern, and DNA Fingerprint Biometrics Collection System”. A local police station reported that front-line officers are given monthly quotas for biometric collection.
Police and media reports also indicate that police units have been constructing voice pattern databases in Guangdong province, Anqi county in Fujian province, Wuhan city in Hubei province, and Nanjing city in Jiangsu province.