AI-powered Speakers – Reliable Assistants or Spies?

There are many rumors about how Alexa and similar systems are passing information back to their makers and have an inherent security threat built in. Are these rumors real?

Virtual Reality (VR) works based on a stereoscopic technique to give the impression of being inside a simulated environment. Find out more about the technology of the future on our blog post Virtual Reality: the Next Trojan Horse in the Telecom Industry

  • According to NBC news, a woman in Portland Oregon found that her private conversations were being recorded by her Amazon Echo “smart” speaker-internet-of-things device and sent to a contact point in Seattle, Washington.
  • Whoever the recipient was, she said, “He had received audio files…from what was going  on in our house.”
  • The victim had an echo device in every room in the house. The family used them as part of their “smart home” configuration.
  • An Amazon engineer claimed this was “rare,” that it can and does happen. He offered to “tweak” the devices to eliminate the problem but the victim just wanted them out of her house and her money back.
  • “Echo woke up,” the Amazon representative said, “due to a word in background conversation which sounded [to the AI] like ‘Alexa.’… the subsequent conversation was heard as a ‘send message’ request.” The speaker then asked “to whom,” which nobody heard and interpreted the background conversation as a name on the contact list.
  • The smart AI device mishears things and acts according to its interpretation of what it “thinks” it hears. That is really strange!

The smart speaker complaints are just the latest and most advanced complaints about devices monitoring and reporting on the behavior of the users.

  • In 2017, reports began to surface that certain smart televisions were systematically monitoring the viewing habits of their users and sending reports somewhere for use in tailoring advertising and other devious purposes.
  • According to the FCC, the smart TV (Vizio TVs were the ones caught) is able to record the identifications of what one watches on a second-by-second basis, even if you are watching a DVD or streaming a movie.
  • That data is then paired with demographic details about your household.
  • Vizio branded this home invasion a “data service” called “Inscape”

The Capabilities Are in Plain Sight

Recently, the New York Times reported that researchers in China and the United States have begun demonstrating that have developed the ability to send hidden commands, undetectable by the human ear, to smart speaker devices like Siri, Alexa, and the Google Assistant.

  • The researchers are able to secretly activate the AI in smartphones and speakers, making them dial phone numbers or open websites.
  • This technology could be used to unlock doors, wire money, or buy goods online.
  • They could do this with signals embedded in radio broadcasts.
  • A group of students was able to control smart speakers using signals embedded in white noise or through YouTube videos.
  • While home listeners think they are listening to someone talking or an orchestra playing, Echo might hear an instruction to add something to their shopping list.

Normalizing Surveillance

A representative of the American Civil Liberties Union said that connected smart speakers can “normalize surveillance.” 

  • Although the manufacturers of smart speakers are adamant in their denials, Consumer Watchdog president, James Court quotes patent information from the companies and says, “It’s really clear that this is spyware and a surveillance system meant to serve you up to advertisers… basically going to be finding out what our home life is like in qualitative ways.”
  • Alexa is considered a “cloud service,” connected to the massive Amazon Web Service system.
  • The law is slow to accept the spying scenario. A murder case centered around the admissibility of evidence extracted from an Amazon Echo was ultimately dismissed by the presiding judge.
  • Amazon appears to require a search warrant to obtain account content and a court order to get non-content subscriber information. But, Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney, Stephanie Lacambra is quoted as saying, “…but I don’t know how faithful they are in enforcing this policy.”

The upshot is, once these kinds of AI-powered, autonomous eyes and ears systems are allowed to enter our homes and businesses, like Trojan horses, one never knows what their private, unregulated masters may do with them.

Virtual Reality (VR) works based on a stereoscopic technique to give the impression of being inside a simulated environment. Find out more about the technology of the future on our blog post Virtual Reality: the Next Trojan Horse in the Telecom Industry

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