The World According to Tim Green: Voiceprints of thieves | Mobile Entertainment

The World According to Tim Green: Voiceprints of thieves

The World According to Tim Green: Voiceprints of thieves
Tim Green


General / December 24th 2012 at 12:30PM

A phone that recognises your voice? Beware gangs of criminal impressionists.

In the last ten years the world has become used to the idea of online banking and payments. Those of us old enough to remember the dawn of this new age will recall the widespread alarm at the security risks involved.

As we all know, these concerns weren't misplaced. Identity theft and hacking is not unusual, phishing is widespread. But, as with so many other areas of life, convenience always seems to trump security.

Queuing up in a bank with a cheque book behind seven old ladies and one student versus a PIN code and the challenge of remembering your mother's maiden name. Which would you choose?

Now, of course, the banks are moving us to phone and tablet transactions. In theory, these are safer that online. Why? Because with a phone you can input security information (your PIN, the first car you stole, the first teacher you slept with) and then get sent a text that delivers a new code, which you input into the system.

They call this two factor authentication – a combo of what you know and what you have.

That's so much harder for a criminal to crack.

But this doesn't stop technologists trying to come up with new barriers to stop the bad guys getting in. The latest comes from phone maker Baidu and the A Star Institute for Infocomm Research in Singapore. They call it 'voiceprint' and it effectively enables the phone to recognise your voice.

Here's how they explain it: "With speaker recognition technology, we extract speaker traits from speech samples and use that to establish a speaker's identity."

It sounds brilliant. But the criminals always find a way round this stuff, and I see one obvious flaw: impressionists – evil impressionists. Actually, not even evil ones. The skill of impressionism seems to have gone out of favour since the glory days of the 70s Callaghan administration. This brave band of men and women must be short of work and vulnerable.

Now they have a purpose. They can follow Simon Cowell around for a bit, nick his phone, say "look, that was the worst performance I've ever seen in my life since last week" and they're in.

If that doesn't work, there's always malware. Get your target to download a dodgy app that records their voice and then use the recordings to open up secure areas.

This would put the pressure back on users to vary their spoken passwords, just as they have to with written ones. The received wisdom today is that a long and nonsensical password is best as criminal tech can whizz through millions of combinations is hours.

But how would you feel repeating '24arsechunkywheelbarrow' every time you wanted transfer £50? And how could you possibly remember dozens of long passwords, one for each account?

The secret could be keep the same password but vary your accent: Barclays joint account – Geordie; Visa credit card – comedy Italian; PayPal: Indian that always comes out a bit Welsh.

Obviously, the worse you are at accents the better protected you'd be. Mrs Green sometimes tries to impersonate my vaguely Brummie vowels and does a consistently appalling job of it. This would be the voiceprint equivalent of the Enigma code.

Especially if you combined it with something she'd never normally say like: 'let's not buy any more Christmas decorations. I've gone off them."

* The man pictured with this article is Mike Yarwood, a very popular British impressionist from the 1970s. 97 per cent of readers will have no idea who he is. He is not evil.