Automated “Robocall” Tech May Soon Be Able to Impersonate Your Mom

It’s happening more and more often: the dreaded scam caller, who seemingly calls from a local number only to tell you that the Social Security Administration is cancelling your social security, that you’ve missed your court date and could soon go to jail or worse.

Quite often these calls are of the old-school analog variety–with a living, breathing person on the other end of the phone, usually an employee of some boiler-room call-center operation. But increasingly, these calls–now nearly up to a third of all calls made in a given day–are completely automated “robocalls” that use spoofing technology and voice-over-IP (VoIP) services such as Skype.

But soon, experts predict that such annoying robocalls could become so advanced that they can not only use the phone numbers of your contacts–a relatively easy-to-perform task using current VoIP tech–but they could use voice-manipulation technology to impersonate your friends, your mother, your boss, or anyone whose voice samples might be floating out there in the public domain.

Tarun Wadwha, an academic and founder of tech advisory firm Day One Insights, told CNN that scammers could easily find out your personal details and other relevant information from public social media profiles, while large-scale hacks and data breaches have likewise exposed the phone numbers, addresses, passwords, credit card information and other private information to the broader world wide web–making it relatively easy for enterprising scammers to patch together a relatively convincing con-job.

And with voice-mimicking tech, “deepfakes” for robocalls aren’t a matter of if, but when.

Wadwha explained:

“It’s going to be like Photoshop — something so easy, widespread, and well known that we stop tracking how it’s being used against people personally and don’t find it surprising … I can easily imagine situations in which these sorts of voice-mimicry technologies are used to sow confusion, extort people and make fraud and scams far more precise.”

Google has already unveiled an impressive AI-powered “voice assistant” known as Duplex that allows users to make dinner reservations through voice calls with receptionists who can’t even tell that they are speaking to an automated voice. The “conversations” with Duplex are so smooth and realistic-sounding that it’s difficult to know whether one is speaking to an actual person or a computerized assistant app.

However, before we start battening down the hatches and asking our parents 20 questions to prove that they are actual humans and not robots, the technology still has a long way to go.

Alex Quilici, the head of robocall-screening app YouMail, said:

“Building a fake computer voice right now is a decent amount of work. If I wanted to build one that sounded like you, for example, I’d need to get a ton of samples of you saying specific phonemes, and train a computer model on that.”

Yet Wadwha cautions that as robocalling tech gets cheaper and grows in scale, the scammers of the future will have an increasingly powerful toolkit. Wadwha warned:

“If we don’t get a hold on this, I believe we’ll look back on robocalls as a much easier problem to deal with than what’s coming down the pipeline.”

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