Extreme tech for covert audio surveillance

The "ultimate sound probe" with a "sharp memory" that can hear something once and create a profile is the size of wooden match and capable of covert audio spying.

If surveillance technology can help save the lives of American GI Joes and Janes, then that is a good thing. Privacy concerns seep in when that same technology moves from military-only use to use in the public domain for the "detection of safety and threats." You know a wooden match is small, which seems better illustrated when seen in an adult's hand, but most folks don't see the small size and think "ultimate sound probe" with a "sharp memory."

The surveillance capabilities of the "matchstick-sized sensor" are so impressive that militaries worldwide have deployed the acoustic vector systems developed by Microflown Technologies. It can "hear" and pinpoint the sound of a gunshot, a drone, or even pick out and record one specific conversation in a crowd. Back in 2011, when Col. Harold Jacobs of the Royal Netherlands Army first saw the system, he was "flabbergasted." He told Scientific American that he was "really surprised about the simplicity, the amazing accuracy, the size and all the possibilities."

One of those possibilities includes the scenario described by NewScientist; the "matchstick-sized sensor that can pinpoint and record a target's conversations from a distance." At first, it was discovered "by chance" that "the device can hear, record or stream an ordinary conversation from as far away as 20 meters." Even though that's a distance of about 65.6 feet, the "hearing" capabilities were improved upon until it could pinpoint and record a specific conversation from 82 feet (25 meters) away. "Work is now underway to increase the range."

Hans-Elias de Bree, co-founder of Dutch firm Microflown and inventor of the sensors, told Scientific American that the senor can pinpoint "a normal, 60-decibel conversation from up to 50 meters away;" for the metric-challenged, that means it can pinpoint a normal conversation from a whopping 164 feet away. The Engineering Toolbox described a normal voice for social situations to be about 55 to 60 decibels.

Furthermore, the Microflown system has a "sharp memory." It can identify "a sound source's unique signature after hearing it once. This information could be used, for example, to create a profile on an elusive sniper by plotting when and where attacks happen." Although that's a fine example for military purposes, there would not, hopefully, be any snipers in the average crowd. That sharp memory could also target the average John Doe if the surveillance device were mounted to a park bench to covertly record audio.

"Given a battery and a tiny antenna, the sensor could be attached to traffic lights, a shrub or park bench," explained NewScientist. "Such systems can be teamed with surveillance cameras."

In a non-military use video for land-based detection of safety threats, Microflown AVISA showed an example of the system working alongside surveillance cameras. It was capable of pinpointing a person in a shot-panic scene, a robbery scene, a cheering scene marked later in the video as normal crowd behavior, and abnormal crowd behavior in a crowd-gathering scene. The playlist of videos six through 10 are marked as private and can only be accessed with permission from Microflown.

Microflown used the below image in its leaflet [pdf] describing the product.

The match-sized sensors can be mounted on drones, helicopters, ships, vehicles, or "even on a soldier's epaulets." It's as if the sensors were mounted on drones flying over America, mounted on buildings, surveillance cameras or on a park bench, when it raises concerns of potential surveillance mission creep. An expert from the University of Kansas told NewScientist, "It will be possible to record a parade of people on a busy sidewalk all day using a camera and acoustic sensor, and tune into each conversation or voice, live or via stored files."

Besides recording conversations, Microflown's match-sized sensors perform whether airborne or on the ground to pinpoint "a 155-millimeter howitzer-at 175 decibels-from up to 40 kilometers away" (nearly 25 miles away); "an 81-millimeter mortar-at 180 decibels-from 25 kilometers away" (about 15.5 miles away); and "a 5.56-millimeter small arms fire-at 155 decibels-from five kilometers away" (3.1 miles away).

When it comes to next-generation surveillance and “seeing,” one of the most impressive yet scary drones is DARPA’s ARGUS-IS. It has a 1.8-gigapixel camera and was described as being the equivalent to having up to 100 Predator drones look at an area the size of a medium-sized city at once. Zooming in allows 65 detailed windows within that area to be opened simultaneously. Within each, objects as small as six inches could be seen on the ground. Although there was no mention of ARGUS’ capabilities to “hear,” that doesn’t necessarily mean it can’t. But it’s not too hard to imagine a Microflown AVISA device mounted on ARGUS to see and to hear for the ultimate creepiness in surveillance.

Microflown's technology looks good overall when you think about it saving lives of men and women in our military, but the possibility of invading our private lives with its "unwelcome" capabilities had Bruce Schneier adding, "It's not just this one technology that's the problem. It's the mic plus the drones, plus the signal processing, plus voice recognition."

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