“Out of the Darkness” is not an easy story to read. It chronicles how two psychologists who had previously devoted their careers to training US troops to resist abusive interrogation tactics teamed up with the CIA to devise a torture program and experiment on human beings. The story is a torrent of information artfully webbed into a fluid narrative, fleshed out with specific, vivid details. It has all the elements we’ve come to expect from strong investigative longform journalism, albeit from an unlikely outlet: The American Civil Liberties Union.
One doesn’t typically think of the ACLU as a journalism outlet, so I reached out to the story’s author, Noa Yachot, to hear more about how the piece came about, and the ACLU’s role as publisher (the story was also syndicated on Medium). Yachot is a communications strategist at the ACLU, and she spoke to Longreads via email. Read more…
The Defense Department, through its Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), started funding academic and commercial research into speech recognition in the early 1970s.
What emerged were several systems to turn speech into text, all of which slowly but gradually improved as they were able to work with more data and at faster speeds.
In a brief interview, Dan Kaufman, director of DARPA’s Information Innovation Office, indicated that the government’s ability to automate transcription is still limited.
Experts in speech recognition say that in the last decade or so, the pace of technological improvement has been explosive. As information storage became cheaper and more efficient, technology companies were able to store massive amounts of voice data on their servers, allowing them to continually update and improve the models. Enormous processors, tuned as “deep neural networks” that detect patterns like human brains do, produce much cleaner transcripts.
And the Snowden documents show that the same kinds of leaps forward seen in commercial speech-to-text products have also been happening in secret at the NSA, fueled by the agency’s singular access to astronomical processing power and its own vast data archives.
In fact, the NSA has been repeatedly releasing new and improved speech recognition systems for more than a decade.
JEFFREY ROSEN: What is the opinion that you’ve written that you think has done the most to advance civil liberties?
RUTH BADER GINSBURG: Oh, Jeff, that’s like asking which of my four grandchildren I prefer. There have been so many. Well, in the women’s rights arena, the Virginia Military Institute case. So many people said to me, “Why would women want to go to that school?” I wouldn’t, and perhaps you, a man, wouldn’t either, but there are women who are ready, willing, and able to undergo that form of education, so why should they be held back by artificial barriers?
There was a decision on the civil side that didn’t get much press, it’s called M.L.B. v. S.L.J. The Court’s precedent was, if you are too poor to afford counsel or to afford a transcript in a felony case, the state must provide legal assistance for you. M.L.B. was a woman facing a deprivation of parental-rights proceedings. She was charged with being an unfit mother. She lost in the first instance and wanted to appeal, but the state’s rule was, to appeal, you must purchase a transcript. M.L.B. didn’t have funds to pay for one. It was technically a civil case, but I was able to persuade a majority of the Court that depriving a parent of parental status is as devastating as a criminal conviction. The Court decided that, if she can’t get an appeal without a transcript, then the state must provide the transcript at no cost to her. That was a departure from the rigid separation of criminal cases, on the one hand, with the right to counsel paid by the state and a transcript paid by the state, and civil cases, in which you do not have those rights. You must be able to pay. I thought M.L.B. was a significant case in that regard, getting the Court to think about the impact on a woman like M.L.B. of being declared a non-parent. It is devastating, much worse than six months in jail.