Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Real-Time Censorship

Disturbing news, everybody!

Microsoft have patented a technology for real-time audio censorship. The technology analyses recorded or live transmitted speech to look for "undesirable" words or phrases and render them inaudible. Which means you can swear all you want, and the person on the other end of the line will just wonder why you've suddenly gone quiet.

Microsoft obviously intends to turn the thing loose on XBox Live, so that young babies and suchlike will be protected from the ravages of the 14-year-old vocabulary, and as a togglable option that's probably something that everyone on that community can benefit from.

It's one of those technologies, though, that could have a lot of horrible, horrible applications in the wrong hands. Can you picture the thing being applied wholesale to our phone system? To our television networks? Ars Technica have already seen the problem in their article, and they draw our attention to the love that regimes like that in China would have for this process. Picture a world where the word "election" simply can't be communicated over a telephone line.

YouTube already uses something similar for automatically detecting copyrighted material in uploaded videos, whereby videos that the algorithm thinks contains visual or audio information belonging to another party are flagged, and the onus is on the video uploader to prove that their work is original. The algorithm is, of course, secret, so the precise method by which it brands you a criminal is neither known nor open to criticism.

Naturally, you can't put the genie back in the box, and the development of something like this was more or less a cultural inevitability. Ultimately the only way that we, as a society, can see that this benefits us more than it harms us is by strong privacy laws, a free and intelligent ongoing political debate on the issue, and through the vigilance of each individual citizen.

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