May 25, 2018

Could voice recognition have prevented Boris Johnson being prank called?

By Ellen Daniel

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson shared information about the UK’s relations with Russia with two hoax callers.

Russian pranksters Vladimir “Vovan” Kuznetsov and Alexei “Lexus” Stolyarov were behind the call, in which one of the duo pretended to be the newly-elected Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan.

In the 18-minute conversation, the foreign secretary congratulated who he thought was the Armenian Prime Minister on his recent election win, telling him he could ‘definitely count on the UK’.

He went onto describe the UK’s relationship with Russia, saying that it was important that ‘we don’t have another Cold War’.

When asked about the Salisbury nerve agent attack, Johnson responded that he was ‘almost 100% sure’ that Putin ordered the attack and that the UK was ‘absolutely determined to stand firm’ against Russia.

The duo, who during the call joked that they hoped the Russian President would not poison them with novichok, are thought to have links with the Russian security services, but have previously denied this.

The Foreign Office has since claimed that Boris Johnson knew it was a hoax and that it is now investigating the call. In a statement, the Foreign Office described the call as ‘childish’ and alleged that the Kremlin was behind it, saying: “This seems to be the latest desperate attempt by the Kremlin to save face after it was internationally shamed in the wake of the Skripal attack.”

Similar hoaxes have happened before

Elton John fell victim to the same pranksters in 2015, when, posing Russian President Vladimir Putin, the pair called the singer to discuss LGBT rights.

US Senator John McCain Congresswoman Maxine Waters were also allegedly fooled in 2017 by an impersonation of the Ukrainian prime minister.

Other targets include Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko.

How did the prank call happen?

Although Johnson does not appear to have revealed any sensitive information, the gaffe raises concerns about how the pranksters were able to get through to the foreign secretary.

According to tweets from BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg, the duo talked to Foreign and Commonwealth Office minister Alan Duncan, getting the number for the foreign secretary from his private office on his recommendation.

In a statement, the Foreign Office said that it had “checked it out and knew immediately it was a prank call” and that it was making sure “that this does not happen again”.

Could voice recognition have prevented Boris Johnson from being fooled?

Voice recognition software, which identifies whether the caller’s voice matches who they claim to be, may have prevented the call from taking place.

Brian Martin, regional director of automatic speech recognition provider Spitch said: “It should go without saying that as a matter of international security, conversations between world leaders and heads of states should always remain contained and confidential.

The slip-up from Boris Johnson, who was fooled into a conversation with potentially classified information demonstrates the critical vulnerabilities in the government’s communications networks. This could have produced a far more serious outcome had the motive behind the breach been of a malicious nature.

“This problem could have been avoided if the communications system the foreign secretary used to take the call had biometric capabilities such as voice identification. It would have flagged that the prankster’s voice profile did not match that of the Armenian Prime Minister, identifying the call as a hoax and now having their voice print, would be able to immediately flag all future calls from that person as being suspicious.”

He added that governments often wait until after an incident has occurred to invest in such technology to prevent similar pranks.

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