Mind tapping

In France, there’s a court case underway to find out who, ten years ago during the Mitterrand years, was responsible for tapping the phones of public personalities who might have leaked the dreadful truth that the Prez had had an illegitimate daughter. Judging by recent reports, big daddy technology is now moving beyond human listeners in the quest for our secrets. According to the MIT Enterprise Technology Review :

Researchers from the University of Rochester and Palo Alto Research Center are aiming to allow computers to automatically assess peoples’ engagement in a conversation by analyzing the way they speak rather than what they say. The researchers’ system analyzes tone of voice and prosodic style, which includes changes in strength, pitch and rhythm.

Great stuff, but why?

It would be useful if a computer could sense ebbs and flows in conversation in order to automatically adjust remote communications systems. It would be useful, for instance, if a system automatically switched from a walkie-talkie-type push-to-talk system to a telephone-like full duplex audio connection when the participants become highly engaged in a conversation. The system could automatically adapt voice channels on-the-fly. It could also help a user who is engaged in conversation avoid distractions by deferring loud and new email announcements and changing instant messaging status to busy.

Sounds sooo user friendly, but natural users would be large government ears listening for the emotional rhythm of conversations between suspect citizens. After all theyet are already planning to spy in the textual medium. Smart Mobs quotes sources saying that the U.S. National Science Foundation and the CIA are to collaborate on research grants to develop “ways to monitor on-line chat rooms for terrorist activities.”

Professors Yener and Krishnamoorthy’s proposal, disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act, received $157,673 from the CIA and NSF. It says: “We propose a system to be deployed in the background of any chat room as a silent listener for eavesdropping…The proposed system could aid the intelligence community to discover hidden communities and communication patterns in chat rooms without human intervention.”

Yener and Krishnamoorthy wrote that their research would involve writing a program for “silently listening” to an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channel and “logging all the messages.” One of the oldest and most popular methods for chatting online, IRC attracts hundreds of thousands of users every day. According to the proposal says their research will begin Jan. 1, 2005 but does not say which IRC servers will be monitored.

Andrew Joscelyne
European, a language technology industry watcher since Electric Word was first published, sometime journalist, consultant, market analyst and animateur of projects. Interested in technologies for augmenting human intellectual endeavour, multilingual méssage, the history of language machines, the future of translation, and the life of the digital mindset.

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