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Vocal 'Fingerprints' Could Help Nab Criminals

Fri, 03/11/2016 - 11:52am
Nala Rogers, Science Magazine

(Shutterstock)On the night George Zimmerman fatally shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, a 911 call captured the sound of someone screaming. But who? An expert for the prosecution testified it was Martin, begging for help in his last moments. But at a pretrial hearing, several scientists said the recording quality was too poor to tell. The call was not admitted as evidence.

The case illustrates the problems in speaker recognition, a forensic field with a checkered history that is trying to find solid scientific ground. Police and lawyers “can’t tell the difference between somebody who’s deluded or who is a charlatan, and somebody who is actually doing solid scientific work,” says Geoffrey Stewart Morrison, an independent forensic scientist and former chair of the Forensic Acoustics Subcommittee of the Acoustical Society of America in Vancouver, Canada.

In the 1960s, analysts began converting recordings into images using spectrograph machines and making subjective judgments about how similar they looked—a method once commonly used in courts but now widely discredited. More reliable alternatives have emerged. Signal processing engineers developed automated systems that typically measure thefrequency components of speech every few milliseconds. Phonetics experts break up recordings based on individual sounds, then analyze the elements using statistical tests or their own judgments.

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Source: Science Magazine

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