NSA Converting Our Spoken Words Into Searchable Text

George Washington's picture

Dan Froomkin reports today at the Intercept:

Most people don’t realize that the words they speak are not so private anymore, either.


Top-secret documents from the archive of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden show the National Security Agency can now automatically recognize the content within phone calls by creating rough transcripts and phonetic representations that can be easily searched and stored.


The documents show NSA analysts celebrating the development of what they called “Google for Voice” nearly a decade ago.




The Snowden documents describe extensive use of keyword searching as well as computer programs designed to analyze and “extract” the content of voice conversations, and even use sophisticated algorithms to flag conversations of interest.




By leveraging advances in automated speech recognition, the NSA has entered the era of bulk listening.


And this has happened with no apparent public oversight, hearings or legislative action. Congress hasn’t shown signs of even knowing that it’s going on.




Jennifer Granick, civil liberties director at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, told The Intercept …  “Once you have this capability, then the question is: How will it be deployed? Can you temporarily cache all American phone calls, transcribe all the phone calls, and do text searching of the content of the calls?” she said. “It may not be what they are doing right now, but they’ll be able to do it.”


And, she asked: “How would we ever know if they change the policy?”


Indeed, NSA officials have been secretive about their ability to convert speech to text, and how widely they use it, leaving open any number of possibilities.


That secrecy is the key, Granick said. “We don’t have any idea how many innocent people are being affected, or how many of those innocent people are also Americans.”




Voice communications can be collected by the NSA whether they are being sent by regular phone lines, over cellular networks, or through voice-over-internet services.

(Anyone who has tried dictating into their smart phone – or who uses modern dictation software – knows how incredibly accurate this kind of technology can be.)

The NSA refused to tell the Intercept how widely the speech-to-text programs are used on Americans.

But high-level NSA whistleblowers Bill Binney, Thomas Drake and Russell Tice have all told Washington’s Blog that NSA is recording the content – and not just the metadata – of Americans’ phone calls. And see this.

Indeed, any statements that content is only stored for some short period of time is moot, since transcripts of that content can easily be stored forever … without taking up much space.

Of course, the NSA voluntarily shares the raw data it collects on American citizens with Israel and likely also with Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK.   And see this.  So those countries might be doing voice-to-text transcription on Americans' conversations as well.

Update: After reviewing this story, NSA whistleblower Bill Binney told Washington’s Blog:

It sounds like they have achieved as least a working level of success at automatically translating speech.  This means to me that they use this capability to do a rough scan of unlimited numbers of phone calls to sample what is being said.  Add to that the ability to do digital recordings at the same time and keep for a short period (20-30 days) gives their analysts (as well as FBI/DEA/DOJ/IRS/DHS/CIA/etc.) a window of opportunity to select the recordings and have people do a final transcription for the record and files/storage.  Now they need to do a similar thing for video. For Americans, this has major implications when applied to the NSA FAIRVIEW program with its 80 to 100 taps on the fiber lines inside the lower 48 states. FAIRVIEW would enable them to capture rough translations of most calls made in the US.

As Binney previously explained:

BILL BINNEY:  Fairview is the program they use that produces most of the content and metadata on US citizens. Note the distribution of tape points in the lower 48 states.



WASHINGTON’S BLOG:  The US 990-Fairview slide certainly shows NSA sucking up alot of data from within America.


But the press characterizes Fairview as gathering info solely on foreigners. Sounds like this is false?


In other words, Fairview sucks up information – content and metadata – on Americans and foreigners, and then NSA simply retains and stores the info?


BILL BINNEY:  If NSA was after only foreigners, then they would have collection points on the east and west coasts at points where the transoceanic cables surface. Anything other than that is collecting domestic communications – the PSTN phone network and the world wide web.


You could argue that Stormbrew [another “upstream” collection program … see below] is targeted at foreign by the distribution. But, some of that is also questionable. This does not count input from cooperative countries (second and third parties) on domestic activity collected by them as well. To the point, they have done nothing but lie to us.



In other words, the Stormbrew map is a pretty good proxy for what foreign surveillance locations should look like. But the Fairview map shows many more collection points all over the country … proving that the NSA is specifically collecting information on Americans living on U.S. soil.

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Limbs Akimbo's picture



As for those who would think to 'overload' their system with 'key' or 'prompt' words like bomb and such stuff as that....this is the time to realize the other component that is even more scary.


Artificial intelligence does not get overloaded. It just gets more bandwidth.

It does not sleep, it does not stop, it is 'scalable' beyond our current population.

dexter_morgan's picture

ah, for the good old days when we had a 4th amendment.....and an actual constitution.....

Shitgum Suicide's picture
Shitgum Suicide (not verified) May 6, 2015 8:58 AM

Sigh! Still pimpin eh?

q99x2's picture

Then here too many shall not listen.

CH1's picture

Addivted to free shit, 99.9% will never take a single action to protect themselves.

disgruntled housewife's picture

Leaving comments here is like preaching to the choir. The following is not my idea but from another commenter here on ZH. I wish I could recall who it was. I admire their taking action and not just spouting off.



messymerry's picture

To a dim bulb nimrod with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  Remember, NSA is just a dog for the elites and their money-changer masters.  When the tax money dries up, the dogs are going to turn mean.  We are beyond stupid to give them so much time to use our resources against us.  They are amassing mountains of lethal capability.  It's going to be a bloodbath. 


One of these is not like the others..'s picture

Back in 1981 I was told that the UK telephone system was being upgraded wth new exchanges called system x.

(I was doing the baseband/microwave side of things at the time)

I was told that system x (35 years ago peeps!) could routinely screen all telephone calls at the exchange level for preset keywords...


Lumberjack's picture

Looks like the NH site might be the BAE Systems facility near Nashua. I did microwave back in your time. Note that voice recognition systems have a bitch of a time with a Maine accent...



Joe A's picture

Old news. They can also look for voice patterns so they can single you out in a bitstream of phonecalls.

Joe A's picture

I see that the ZH member who always downvotes me regardless of what I write is up early today.

CH1's picture

I see that the ZH member who always downvotes me regardless of what I write

You're not alone, Joe. Mostly the hate squad, I think.

Ghordius's picture

ha! walk even one mile, I mean post even one day with my avatar here and then we can talk about it

Joe A's picture

Yeah, but ok, you are asking for it ;-)

Just kidding. Always appreciate your contributions alsthough I don't always agree with them.

Aussiekiwi's picture

You should always start you phone calls to a friend with the words, "terrorism, attack ,ISIS bomb" and head up your emails as well, flood them with crap its the only way.

hendrik1730's picture

Or encode your mails with a self written encryption program. A bit cumbersome to use but good privacy.

Joe A's picture

Interesting but anything they can't decypher will surely get their attention.

Ms No's picture

I am apparently in the dog house.  Two residences ago I had the census come out way ahead of schedual and demand to GPS my garage.  I politely told them I did not wish to participatein the gps (I did fill out the required paper census later), she then told me that if I refused the Sherrifs' dept would be called, I told her that would be fine I wouldn't mind a conversation with the local Sheriffs as I knew them all, then she hit a button on some apparatus she held in her hand and drove off.

I also had a strange man come to my last residence claiming he was taking a federal survey on mental health and he was attempting to be very authoritarian and spooky.  I told him I wasn't interested in his survey.  He told me he had noticed that I had a for sale sign and enquired where I was moving to.  I laughed and told him that while I thought he was cute I didn't know him well enough to give out personal information.

I have no criminal record and I am not guilty of anything other than voicing my opinion on sites such as this, was once a presidential delegate and protesting a couple times in my younger years.  I do not have a large stockpile of weapons or ammo and have never threatened anyone.  I have never been diagnosed with a mental illness or had any evaluations required or asked of me.

I'm not sure if these are intimidation tactics to keep people from being politically active or what.  It sends an icy cold shiver down my spine every time.  I have come to the conclusion that you can kiss ass to the system all you want, if you are aware you are their problem.     

fleur de lis's picture

You should have asked them for ID and a business card. Don't get them used to walking up to your door acting all important, then demanding  and getting answers if they can't produce creds. Get their contact info and meet them in an office. 

As for your mental status or political affiliations, it doesn't matter to them. You could be a professor in both areas and it wouldn't matter. You could have a wild mental record or be a violent Marxist agitator and it still wouldn't matter. They only want compliant pawns and if you say "no" or even question them you're a problem.

ersatz007's picture

"What's the point of a doomsday machine if you don't use it, eh?!!?" - Dr Strangelove.

Limbs Akimbo's picture



Uh....little 'late' with this one son.


Between O.C.R. (object character recognition) and just those cheap off the shelf  voice spoken transcribing software this stuff has been around for like at least the last fifteen years. And that is just the low end 'Best Buy' kind of thing.

SixIsNinE's picture

I'm not too worried .... my gmail voicemail google transcription turns any vmail message into gobbledygook.... and that's for standard American US English... trying to transcribe the variety of Mandarin into usable Bluffdalespeak English, I'll believe it when I hear it, or see it...

CH1's picture

my gmail voicemail google transcription

Sarc, right? Please tell me that's sarc.

Google is 100% evil and 100% wired into CIA, NSA, State Dept., etc.

hendrik1730's picture

If you don't know how Google ecnodes your transmissions, you in fact know nothing whether you bare protected or not. And Google plus Government is one - Google may have given decoding software to the authorities from day 1. Use self written encryption stuff. Be smart.

Moccasin's picture

Terror talk everyday and all the time for the fun of it. ie; Bomb them if they try it...... or Nuke the bastard with the a dirty bomb if he thinks that.... or 100's of other examples, let your imagination run wild and have fun. Lets put the FUD back on the NSA and create a new slang or nomenclature for everday living. :))

VWAndy's picture

Hey they got one near me. Kinda makes me feel all special an stuff.

Chupacabra-322's picture

Dear NSA,

In the very near future your Pure Evil Criminal Psychopath Organization & infrastructure will be burned into the groud with all of you in it.

End Transmission.

logicalman's picture

When you've got as much computer power and storage as those guys have, you may as well have fun with it!

Would it be possible to overpower their storage and computational power by giving them so much bogus info that they choked on it?

Worth thinking about.

weburke's picture

mums the word on their real tool I suppose. and quite a strong mum it would appear.

ebworthen's picture

"Pressure cooker chicken on 4th of July at the big fireworks show with a lot of people will be the bomb.  While the Muslims of Islam face Mecca we shall look upwards and see the explosions celebrating the survival of the Republic and dismember any notions that this nation shall perish from the Earth.  Let the Muslims Praise Allah, we will praise cell phones and backpacks and gathering to celebrate being infidels in the eyes of Jihad."

NikoBellick's picture

When the fuck is enough ENOUGH? at what point do we all stop bitching online and decide to do something? What fresh horrors must we be presented with before we designate rally points and march on our enemies? This whole thing is gonna collapse one way or another why not start it on our terms, the odds are already against us.

Doubleguns's picture

Tea Parties, Bundy ranch, oath keepers, preppers, stacking, gun sales, ammos sales, yep nothing is being done. 

marathonman's picture

It all comes down to power.  And to the people who have it, there is never ENOUGH power. 


Pleased to meet you - hope you guessed my name...

JessieSharpton's picture
JessieSharpton (not verified) NikoBellick May 6, 2015 6:40 AM

"at what point do we all stop bitching online and decide to do something?"

There are so many domestic government enemies, its hard to focus on just one.

weburke's picture

first live through the coming days Niko. And make sure your family and freinds do also. prep.  When dust settles, review and act. Patience is THEIR enemy, not ours.

Joebloinvestor's picture

Wait till the disclosure on the unlawful DNA collection taking place.

Finding Osama was just a by product.

me or you's picture

We can fix this easily just targeting NSA employees and their families. Targeting=Putting bullets on their heads.

weburke's picture

nsa slaves are not targets.

Doubleguns's picture

Targeting the workers would have eliminated Snowden or the next one or the one after that. 

Doubleguns's picture

Targeting the workers would have eliminated Snowden or the next one or the one after that. 

me or you's picture

Want to see something funny just right the word "bombs" couple of time into gmail, yahoo or outlook and see who will be knocking at your door at 5am.

Jim in MN's picture

I hope they can translate Asifian and Ironistanic.

metaStable's picture

I kan not get shiri to undorstund my theek south asian akshunt. I am safe onry.

Goldilocks's picture

Going Dark, Fuhgeddaboudit
Former NSA attorney blames Blackberry’s demise on encryption

Reaper's picture

What happens if NSA mishears? What happens if the NSA lies about what was heard? How do you defend against NSA charges? Your word versus the infallible NSA computer? What is truth? What is government manufactured lies?

Presently, the fools on juries trust the police and FBI testimony and forensic evidence. The flaw is trust of those in uniforms, or in court robes. A greater flaw would be in trust in NSA recorded or voice transcribed data.

Lord Actom: "I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt."

Trust in the NSA corrupts the NSA. More data and more power corrupts the NSA more completely. Trust becomes fatal. Ask Julius Caesar.

TheReplacement's picture

Remember your words and act accordingly when called for jury duty.  Don't beg off with some lame excuse.  Serve and do your duty and uphold the highest standards of justice. 

nmewn's picture

Yes, don't just blindly trust the evidence presented by the state, make them prove the validity of it, the what-where-why & how they got it.

That is the highest standard ;-)