What Happens When Spies Can Eavesdrop on Any Conversation?

Imagine having access to the all of the world’s recorded conversations, videos that people have posted to YouTube, in addition to chatter collected by random microphones in public places. Then picture the possibility of searching that dataset for clues related to terms that you are interested in the same way you search Google. You could look up, for example, who was having a conversation right now about plastic explosives, about a particular flight departing from Islamabad, about Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in reference to a particular area of Northern Iraq.

On Nov. 17, the U.S. announced a new challenge called Automatic Speech recognition in Reverberant Environments, giving it the acronym ASpIRE. The challenge comes from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, or ODNI, and the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency, or IARPA. It speaks to a major opportunity for intelligence collection in the years ahead, teaching machines to scan the ever-expanding world of recorded speech. To do that, researchers will need to take a decades’ old technology, computerized speech recognition, and re-invent it from scratch. Continue reading