DellVille AZ May 2018.
“OMG!”, Casey thought, “Has one of my predictions come to pass?”.
Her mind ran through the questions she’d dumped on Detective Swank and their last weekly coffee meeting. She’d wondered how well prepared the city was for a full-fledge communication outage. So far, the national electrical grid seemed able to repel foreign and domestic attackers. But, what were the local vulnerabilities? The Detective made a note to scout other comparable city plans and check out the county alert system, dubbed “Code Red”. That early 2018 Hawaii false missile attack announcement was a warning to all state and regional authorities.
Now Detective Swank could be dealing with impending vocal terrorism. Many citizens and in-store entertainment systems relied on local radio, which could easily turn a hijacked microphone over to another speaker. Casey predicted a simulated or real attack within a month, perhaps at the annual rodeo.
She had her own immediate problems. Of course, the Internet goes out just when you have bills to pay and messages to return, not to mention catching up on the latest civil unrest over Congressional elections.
Casey reviewed her prior experience. Was this outage due to her flaky home router again? A call to the cable company information site would tell her if the network was down in her part of town. She couldn’t believe what was happening at that moment. “What’s this busy signal? Ok, I’ll call a friend. Amazing, there’s more buzz-buzz-buzz. The cell towers must be congested while land and cable phone systems are down.”
A quick trip to the bank ATM was high priority after her little vacation. She drove into chaos in her bank’s parking lots. The ATM station was cordoned off. Then, she was horrified to find that the building was under Lock Down! Other patrons were banging on the bank’s doors and windows. “WTF is going on?”, shouted a woman taking a selfie of her credit card before the “Temporarily Closed” sign.
Returning to her car, Casey saw her occasional taxi driver, Red, picking up an elderly lady, a town gadfly. Rapping on his window, she could tell he was agitated. In his gruff New Jersey accent, he told her what he knew.
“Phones are down all around town, both cell and land lines. Most commercial payment systems are wacky. Nobody knows what’s going on. Even calling the non-emergency police line gets buzz-buzz. Nobody has received that emergency alert call promised months ago.”
Rolling up his window and backing up, Red saluted Casey. “We taxi drivers are rallying to pick up stranded passengers. You can bet on Red to the Rescue! Gotta go.”
Now she had a trustworthy report from an observer of the town’s minute-to-minute activities. With too little cash and a non-operational debit card, her coffee creamer and refrigerator food refresh would have to wait.
Back home, her cell phone still made no calls and had no Internet connections, ditto for the cable Internet and phone. Going on 3 hours incommunicado was getting nerve-wracking. Could this big outage be related to the “vocal terrorism” attack she’d just discussed with Detective Swank, who might have more information? First she tried a text out of town to let her brother know she was OK, but incommunicado.
On a whim, she dropped by to see detective Swank at the local police station, hand carrying a thumb drive as an excuse for interrupting his work. In their cluttered office, one staffer was monitoring the emergency channels in other states. The youthful-looking police chief was muttering that outages had been occurring sporadic across the country. She showed them a graph of normal daily down-times for a few minutes versus a pattern of several hours in medium-sized rural cities across several states. The Chief didn’t want to start any rumors, but she’d alerted the tribal community members they were likely embroiled in a real attack, not another test. Detective Swank waved Casey out the door so official business could take place. She knew he’d update her at their next Tuesday morning coffee get-together where she could share expert reports from the venerable Computing Risks Digest.
Casey returned home freaked out from the news about a wave of outages. After two more hours, with her humble radio recharged, — she received reports about a vandalized trunk line, now repaired. But the repair work destroyed criminal evidence at the damage site deep in the desert.
She reviewed the situation. “Our attacker might be a lone wolf or group observing our pattern of disrupted services. Certainly, this couldn’t be a single point of infrastructure failure? Was this an original, or a copycat, crime? There could be a case study project to interest National Academe infrastructure researchers.”
Slowly, the Internet came back on for both smart phone and laptop. Her Twitter timeline showed no national warnings of attacks elsewhere. The long-awaited local message finally announced “Emergency services are experiencing intermittent interruptions. Keep trying if you need 911!”.
What a day! She had helped define a new terrorism threat defense in the morning and experienced a possible terrorist attack in the afternoon. As the shadow of a towering monsoon thunder storm passed through, weather alerts rang out on her phone and radio. She realized the usual Internet and Web information sources weren’t worthy of trust. Did this Cassandra-aka-Cassy-aka-Casey really have predictive powers?
Now that her search engines were back in action, she could start her “vocal terrorism”assignment for Detective Swank. Her recent weekend in “Sally World” would pay off. That well-adjusted, visually impaired colleague had showed her the VoiceDream app on her iPhone. They played with voices that sounded bi-coastal or like newscasters weaned from fly-over Country. Simulated ethnic vocal characteristics didn’t fit the vocabularies of articles they were asked to speak.
Older, raspier voices were non-existent. Sally resurrected “ATT Claire” on her decade-old desktop. However, the first major synthetic voice producer, ATT, was no longer competitive with NeoSpeech, Nuance, Accapella, and Microsoft Mobile. TalkBack and VoiceOver had energized the text-to-speech market. Foreign accents were available incase a terrorist wanted to stir up immigration issues. Casey was amazed that the Apple Voice Store was so rich in files that each cost less than an iced mocha with whipped cream.
A little research on forensic speech recognition suggested that it would be easy to distinguish human-spoken from synthetic-read recorded passages. Humans breathed!Casey noted that the point wasn’t whether a calm person or an algorithm could identify a synthetic terrorist command but rather how inattentive crowds react to commands heard from a disembodied entity. The commercial success of synthetic voices had de-sensitized listeners to tone and focused them on important content that might not be repeated.
But what about those country and generational accents? Would an attacker need to clone a specific voice?
“No problem,” Sally texted back, “algorithms do that! people losing their voices to illness record themselves for researchers to capture their speech traits. There’s a T.E.D talk and an Economist podcast on vocal cloning. Maybe it’s yet another an AI claim, but I personally would trust the Scottish and US labs that define the speech slices to be catenated into smooth wordings.”
Sally pointed out another possible clue to distinguish synthetic from human voices. Print disabled people using text-to-speech over the past four decades had reported a type of error known as a “Speak-o”. Multi-syllable words like “Pakistanis” were mis-pronounced as “Pa-kis’-tan-is”. Synthetic speech generators didn’t know parts of speech or tense for words like “read”. Sally claimed that her years of print-disabled listening enabled her to tell real from synthetic voices, but she doubted most people had that skill. Alas, her wonderful assistive technology could turn into yet another weapon for gun-fueled disturbed citizens.
To complete this easy assignment, Casey recorded some threatening tweets, transcripts from past terrorists, offenders from the “Me Too” lineup of 2017, and nuggets from the press conferences of The Great Trickster and his spokesperson du jour.
She finished her report by noting that Pink Page attackers could easily replace a link to a recorded message with an MP3 of synthetic speech sounding like the declared speaker. Everybody could be listening to “Take news” in yet another trick of technology and another gift of The Great Trickster to society.
Casey jotted down a list of the top five most likely targets for vocal terrorism. The events weren’t far off in time or place.