The NSA has been using software to convert intercepted phone calls into transcripts stored in searchable databases, it is claimed. It is also entirely believable: Dragon Dictate isn't exactly top secret, is it?
Documents leaked by Edward Snowden and published by The Intercept on Tuesday show that Uncle Sam's spies, and their British counterparts at GCHQ, have been investing in the technology to convert phone calls and news reports in foreign languages into English for over a decade.
According to a 2008 GCHQ memo purloined by Snowden, British intelligence had been using such technology for five years, and the NSA for at least ten years.
According to the tranche of files, the NSA first built its speech-recognition efforts around Dragon, a commercially available program. It then shifted to a package called Byblos, before updating to a new piece of software codenamed RHINEHART.
The agency ran into problems in that commercial speech recognition systems concentrated on English and Spanish, and the agency noted that there was little or no development going on for languages like Farsi and Pashto, so the agency developed its own solutions.
In a 2006 memo, the NSA said: "We are entering a golden age for Human Language Technology (HLT). Powerful and inexpensive computers, high-speed networking, and advanced algorithms are being combined to revolutionize the analyst desktop." The resultant software was the equivalent of "Google for Voice," the memo boasts, saying one system could process "one million cuts a day."
The primary purpose of the software is to pick out keywords in recorded conversations – it is trivial for the NSA and GCHQ to intercept phone calls. It is also used to provide a translation of foreign media reports. In these cases, technology takes away the need for a highly paid and/or scarce foreign language translator to do the hard work.
"The National Security Agency employs a variety of technologies in the course of its authorized foreign-intelligence mission," spokesperson Vanee Vines wrote in an email to The Intercept.
"These capabilities, operated by NSA's dedicated professionals and overseen by multiple internal and external authorities, help to deter threats from international terrorists, human traffickers, cyber criminals, and others who seek to harm our citizens and allies." ®