Risky Speaking


Dellville, Arizona.


Back home from D.C., Casey sipped her coffee while watching her neighborhood quail on their early morning migration. Bending over her deck railing, she counted nine remaining fledglings bordered by echoing parents. These familiar noisy parades marked hourly breakpoints of shared existence around her home. Those well organized and cheery quail neighbors always reminded her to nurture younger counterparts.


Today meant listing catch-up items on an old-fashioned Steno notepad. Item #1: “Meet with young “syster” Brittany to work on her science project, “The Victorian era loom industry, Ada Lovelace, and symbolic computing”.” Item #2: “Get coffee creamer!”, as she winced at her bitter drink.


Inside the French doors off the broad deck, her iPhone Marimba ring-tone alerted a surprise call from Detective Gordon Swank, the police IT cyber guy. As she mastered computational snooping over the past 3 months, he’d become her contact with the National Terrorist Fusion centers. The local force was upgrading its IT skills. However bumbling detectives had failed to stick any further accusations onto that despicable stockbroker wife murderer.


Pressing the speaker button and dropping the Steno pad on the kitchen counter, Casey expected changes in today’s plans. His conversations always began formally.


“Ms. Hawk, we have a baffling problem that requires high tech advice. Are you available for some consulting?”


This underpaid civil servant often recounted how much he enjoyed scouting her earlier tips at lavish local country club golf events. His High Tech Detective career was beginning to depend on her regular assistance. And, she was intrigued with his different world view.


Her early morning voice quivered. “Of course, and call me Cassandra, Detective. It’s good to be in contact again. What’s up?”


Detective Swank’s teasing attitude took over. “Ditto, I’m learning a lot of tech stuff from our Geek Goddess, as we call you, ha! You know we have these Neighborhood Watch and drug tip lines, right?”


Casey stuck her cooling coffee in the microwave. “Yes, that’s how we citizens keep you busy. I do my part!”


He chuckled. “Indeed, you do. Strictly speaking, we should respect caller anonymity. But what the heck is this new tip stream? The caller uses a dark phone, one of those disposable jobs, and roams around our massive county. But what’s weird is the voices he or I or they or it, whatever, use.”


Casey thought she knew where this was going.


“For a while we were hearing a muffled tone, common when people are shakily scared to speak to us. Sometimes the caller sounded male, other times female, occasionally very young. One speaker was even vaguely ethnic, which is quite unusual here in Whitey-World. Then a staff assistant noted the resemblance to that iPhone Siri speaker, and we realized the caller was using a fake voice.”


Raising her fist to celebrate her premonition, Casey cheered, “Wow, Detective, that must have been really baffling.”


The detective gulped, “Those vocal sayings were more pleasant and natural than my annoying GPS. It scolds my wrong turn by saying ‘Recalculating, turn right in.3 miles’. I hate that!”


He paused. “Actually the voices are very understandable after we replay a few times. Dammit, there’s always something new.”


Casey needed to hurry him up so she could go to the bathroom. “Are the callers saying something important?”


The detective groaned, “Definitely! Our drug squad is intrigued. Those daily tip drops are about 50% on target when it comes to chemical creations, you know, often called ‘bath salts’. Sleazy shops and the usual dealers have made a comeback selling such disguised substances, even after we passed so many laws and busted dozens a year ago. Nobody cares about this lowlife informant’s identity, but, wow, how does that S O B gets so much good information?”


Casey was tired. “Come on, Gordon, I explained to you how Whisperers let me snoop so easily. Other folks have similar tricks.”


He said, “Yep, I forgot how you work. Anyway, The same person, probably, is even more interesting when it comes to that long term, never ending murder case. Certain tips are fingering some important community people, like city council members and charity heads and a sporty lawyer. Knowing how this person ties into the community might break open the case. We still believe the guy in jail is the murderer, though.”


Wearily, he sighed, “So many tips, so little time. This informant must be younger to fit with the drug user age group, while the murder case tipster is AARP age, like you. Oops, sorry. It’s all very confusing and new to us.”


Casey prodded, “So, what’s the problem if you’re getting good information, even if the information is spoken in an unusual way?”


The detective lowered his voice. “Actually, our commanding officers think this foretells what the intelligence agencies warned about back in 2007. The British called it ‘vocal terrorism’. Voices that could fool professionals like us might be used for false public announcements or in delicate negotiations.”


He ruffled some pages. “Here’s what really worries us. One local middle school is a hotbed of bored rich kids. Imitating the school principal in an emergency situation could fool the staff and security officers and cause public panic.” He sighed, “Or, maybe, a killer might round up students for slaughter. In the midst of chaos, a familiar sounding speaker would command action.”


His voice distanced as if he’d set his phone on the table. “Dammit, I just spilled coffee on an important case. I hate paper. So, anyway, this is like a national emergency test to build profiles for people who could or would use these synth voices, whatever you call them.”


Casey chuckled to herself. “Really, Gordon, do you think our government could be behind this? Could it be the Russians? OMG!”


The Detective resumed his unofficial attitude. “Yes, maybe good old Homeland Security is testing us cops before awarding a grant or just to see how we react. With our department reputation for mishandling physical murder evidence, maybe we can do better with data. Who knows how to do this voice thing? how hard is it? does it cost a lot?”


Casey was intrigued. “Are you also interested in these callers’ demographics? Like is this a kid gamer thing? Do you really need to identify your informant? Or are you just getting experience with a new possible attack vector?”


Detective Swank put her on hold then resumed, breathlessly. “Cassandra, you’re brilliant. Yes, we want to be prepared to defend our fair city. Please spend a few hours gathering examples to tutor me to set up my own speaking imitator. If this weren’t like terrorist thinking it would be fun and games. How about I come over in two days to take the voices out for a spin? Gotta go, we have another fast food restaurant robbery in progress!”



Later that morning, travel letdown hit Casey hard. The OMG Reunion wasn’t just a bust, it shook her belief in the contributions of her computing profession. Her weekend’s companionship with Sally had explored the good and bad sides of web site design affecting people with vision loss. She feared that a rampage of Pink Page attacks could accelerate the downfall of the WWW. Having worked on the early ArpaNet in the 1970s, enjoyed Usenet in the 1980s, researched hypertext argumentation as the Internet commercialization metastasized into surveillance capitalism, she couldn’t imagine life without Twitter for news and myriad website’s for information, no matter how rickety their design. Tweeting off those advertising distraction, mis-informants, and privacy intruders was a game she played in her hours of personal isolation.


The CumuLinker Whisperer offered her new social channels and a means to replenish her retirement funds. Detective Swank’s call nudged her toward private investigator gigs. Her specialty could be computational snooping using her power over Whisperer programming. Society was stumbling into sinister use cases for the Whisperer’s synthetic speech.


She’d been seeking a technology challenge throughout her retirement years. Could her professional niche using Consequential Reasoning supplement her own intuition and predictive tendencies? She wasn’t just any “Cassandra namesake” archetype, she was “Casey, the oracle” who knew how to select valid and reliable test cases to probe software qualities.


Names and nicknames distracted her travel-tired brain. She’d forgotten until the reunion about her former college nickname, “Cassy”, which she’d changed to “Casey” in her mid-career return to graduate school. Modern search engines didn’t track her identity from “CHawk@ISI’ in the 1970s, through “CsHawk” on Usenet, bypassing the intermittent “ClassyCassy”, into her modern “moniker “Casey”. Only a dip into public records could reveal her complete identity and occasional financial and legal misadventures. Colleague Sally Rhodes had encountered the British saying, and comic strip, “Sally Forth”. They’d compared nicknames with identity over their wine and appetizers in Washington.


Then they challenged each other to name the “gang of X” which they’d imagined would take on those Pink Page marauders. The two differently experienced computing elders agreed to disagree whether Pink Page attacks were sexist, let alone healthy for the Web in the long run. Both were fans of TimBL, the Web’s creator, who now railed at his ugly, nasty progeny.


Both wanted a joint project. Casey would pursue attackers identities and explore their motives. Sally would develop defenses against the attackers which could also improve the quality of the victim website’s. Sally had already grabbed the domain name for their envisioned gallery of before-during-after screen shots with their critiques.They were ElderOrder.org.


She opened her Steno pad and started a mind map to sort out her questions, doubts, and opportunities.


And then, Casey’s Internet connection dropped. She fixed lunch, waiting for at least one connection to revive, suspecting a two-hour Cyber Squirrel electrical repair job. She yelled at her iPhone, “Come on, Internet, I have work to do!”