Voiceprint Harvesting: The Next Privacy Challenge

October 20, 2014

voice mail messageIn an effort to fight the growing problems of fraud and identity theft, major financial institutions turn to an expanding array of technologies.  An increasingly popular security technology involves voiceprint collection.  Although this technology provides an effective security tool, its increasingly widespread use poses important privacy concerns.

Financial institutions such as J.P. Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo & Company now reportedly collect voiceprints from callers engaging in telephone transactions or requesting information.  These voiceprints are collected and incorporated into databases.

The voiceprints of individuals involved in suspicious communications or transactions are flagged.  Examples of suspicious communications may include multiple requests for personal information made by a single caller.  These targeted voiceprints are included in databases characterized by some as “blacklists.”

The voiceprints included in the blacklists are subject to increased monitoring and oversight.  Each time a blacklisted caller contacts the financial institution, the communication is monitored and analyzed.

Similar to fingerprints, voiceprints provide a highly accurate method to identify specific individuals.  For this reason, they are effective tools in fighting fraud.  However, their effectiveness depends, in part, on development of a large database of voiceprints.

Both companies and governments around the world are reportedly now highly active creating extensive voiceprint databases.  It is alleged that there are now approximately 65 million voiceprints on file globally.

Experience with collection of other forms of personal data indicates that there are significant privacy challenges associated with management and use of these databases.  Frequently, data collected for important legitimate uses ultimately ends up being used by unanticipated parties for applications that are far beyond the scope of the original intent.

Voiceprint collection and analysis will likely become increasingly popular as a tool against fraud and other criminal conduct.  As we rely more and more on that technology, however, we must also remain mindful of the privacy threat it poses.

Creation of massive voiceprint databases can dramatically advance security systems.  It also, however, provides the means through which governments and other organizations can monitor person communications and invade the privacy of individuals around the world.

Use of voiceprint collection and analysis serves the public interest as part of an active anti-fraud system.  The process also, however, involves an inevitable threat to privacy and civil liberties.  The key challenge is rapid development of rules, policies, and practices that facilitate appropriate security uses of voiceprints while reducing the risk of misuse of the voiceprint data.