“Vocal Terror” or Even Better Phishing Scams?

BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Scientists warn of ‘vocal terror’

According to Dr. David Howard of the University of York, soon a computer will have the ability to sound exactly like someone we trust. Dr. Howard sees this as a potentially huge problem. He warns of a day, sometime around 2017, when an attacker compromises some large chunk of a nation’s emergency communications infrastructure and impersonates someone of high rank. Said attacker could then theoretically cause a great deal of harm by merely sounding like the previously mentioned high ranking official who then causes a panic of some sort or another.

When the computer that is perfectly matching your trusted person’s voice can also pass a Turing test while also looking exactly like someone we trust then I’ll agree that it’s a big problem.

But not in the ways Dr. Howard seems to be worried about. I’m not discounting Dr. Howard’s warning. I just think that the scope of the problem covered by his warning of “vocal terror” is both too small and entirely in the wrong place. Too small because I foresee this technology being abused by the same sorts of people who are currently defrauding people via phishing scams. Emails and websites that mimic the look & feel of communications from your real bank, the IRS, etc. are bad enough. Scams that exploit our intrinsic nature to trust our eyes and ears by utilizing nearly perfect emulations of people we trust will require some significant changes to our daily lives to defeat.

I can see the television commercial for the fraud prevention service now…

“Honestly honey, it looked and sounded just like you. If I even suspected that it was a member of organized crime out to ruin our lives, I would have never given out our most sensitive financial and personal data… ”

I’m going to bet that nearly every sort of everyday activity (phone calls, credit card transactions, emails, etc.) will be secured by digital certificates and cryptography. It seems the only practical way of dealing effectively with these sort of trust issues.

I just don’t look forward to the day when I have to explain to my then 70+ year old mother the nuances of PKI and crypto.

Matt McGuirl, CISSP

About Matt McGuirl

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