Police Want Alexa Data; People Begin to Realize It’s Listening

It is interesting to see the wide coverage of a police investigation looking to harvest data from the Amazon Echo, the always-listening home automation device you may know as Alexa. A murder investigation has led them to issue Amazon a warrant to fork over any recordings made during the time of a crime, and Amazon has so far refused.

Not too long ago, this is the sort of news would have been discussed on Hackaday but the rest of my family would have never heard about it. Now we just need to get everyone to think one step beyond this and we’ll be getting somewhere.

What isn’t being discussed here is more of concern to me. How many of you have a piece of tape over your webcam right now? Why did you do that? It’s because we know there are compromised systems that allow attackers to turn on the camera remotely. Don’t we have to assume that this will eventually happen with the Echo as well? Police warrants likely to affect far less users than account breaches like the massive ones we’ve seen with password data.

All of the major voice activated technologies assert that their products are only listening for the trigger words. In this case, police aren’t just looking for a recording of someone saying “Alexa, help I’m being attacked by…” but for any question to Alexa that would put the suspect at the scene of the crime at a specific time. Put yourself in the mind of a black hat. If you could design malware to trigger on the word “Visa” you can probably catch a user giving their credit card number over the phone. This is, of course, a big step beyond the data already stored from normal use of the system.

It’s not surprising that Amazon would be served a warrant for this data. You would expect phone records (although not recordings of the calls) to be reviewed in any murder case. Already disclosed in this case is that a smart water meter from the home reported a rather large water usage during the time of the murder — a piece of evidence that may be used to indicate a crime scene clean-up effort.

What’s newsworthy here is that people who don’t normally think about device security are now wondering what their voice-controlled tech actually hears them say. And this is a step in the right direction.

Let Alexa Control Your Life; Guide to Voice-Enable Everything

Let’s face it, automation doesn’t feel quite as futuristic unless you can just say what you want out loud and have the machines flawlessly obey. That is totally possible now — and on the cheap. Well, cheap as far as money goes. It can be an expensive learning curve to get it all working. This will help. [Lindo St. Angel] has put together a guide to navigate voice control of hardware using Amazon’s Alexa SDK.

We previously reported that Amazon’s AI had escaped its hardware prison in the form of the Alexa Skills Kit. Yes, calling it the Alexa SDK above is wrong it’s actually the ASK but nobody knows what that acronym is while most recognize the gist of an SDK. It gives you the hooks and the documentation necessary to leverage the functionality in your own applications. The core functionality of Alexa is voice recognition. Even so, it’s still a tall hill to climb.

[Lindo] has broken down the problem into a very manageable example. The Amazon Voice Service (part of ASK) is used for voice recognition and control. Amazon’s Lambda service connects the ASK to your piece of hardware; in this case he’s using a Raspberry Pi as the server. The final step is to connect your hardware to the Pi. [Lindo] is interfacing a keypad-based home automation system with the Pi but the sky’s the limit at this point.

With all the authentication and connectivity laid bare, this is a lot more approachable. The question is no longer can you connect everything to voice control. The question becomes should you give control of everything over to one single online service?

Amazon’s AI Escapes its Hardware Prison

It’s the 21st century, and we’re still a long way from the voice-controlled computers we were all promised in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. The state of voice interaction has improved, though, and Amazon’s release of the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK) is another sure step towards a future of computers that will pay attention to you. This allows any hardware to become Alexa, your personal voice assistant with the ability to do just about anything you command.

amazon_echoUp to this point, Alexa was locked away inside the Amazon Echo, the ‘smart’ cylinder that sits in your living room and does most of what you tell it to do. Since the Amazon Echo was released, we’ve seen the Echo and the Alexa SDK used for turning lights on and off, controlling a Nest thermostat, and other home automation tasks. It’s not Google Now, Microsoft’s Cortana, or Apple’s Siri that is behind all these builds; it’s Amazon’s Alexa that is bringing us into a world where Star Trek’s [Scotty] talking into an old Mac is seen as normal.

Right now, the Getting Started guide for the Alexa Skills Kit is focused more on web services than turning lights on and air conditioning off. Sample code for ASK is provided in JavaScript and Java, although we would expect 3rd party libraries for Python to start popping up any day now. If you want to run ASK on a Raspberry Pi or other small Linux computer, you’ll need a way to do voice capture; the Jasper project is currently the front-runner in this space.

We hope this changes the home automation game in a couple of different ways. First, the ASK processes everything in the cloud so very low power devices are now ready for some seriously cool voice interaction. Second, Amazon’s move to open up what you can do with the software backend means a community developing for the hardware could eventually exert pressure on Amazon to do things like making the system more open and transparent.

Already working on some hacks with the Echo or ASK? Send in a tip to your write-up and tells us about it in the comments below.

Control Nest Devices with Amazon Echo

[ZPriddy] was looking for a way to control his Nest thermostats with Amazon Echo. He didn’t want to settle for using AWS or some other hosted service. [ZPriddy] wanted something that he could host and manage completely on his own. The end result is what he calls EchoNestPy.

[ZPriddy] started by learning how to use the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK). ASK is the official SDK that allows enthusiasts to add functionality to their Amazon Echo. Unfortunately for [ZPriddy], most of the example code he found was designed to be used on Amazon Lambda, but that didn’t stop him. After finding a few examples of Amazon Echo requests and responses, he was on his way.

[ZPriddy] chose to implement a simple web server using Flask. The web server listens for the Amazon requests and responds appropriately. It also Oauth2 authentication to ensure some level of security. The server is capable of synchronizing the temperature of multiple Nest devices in the same home, but it can also increment or increment the temperature across the board. This is accomplished with some simple voice commands such as “Tell Nest that I’m a little bit chilly”. If you like Amazon Echo hacks, be sure to check out this other one for controlling WeMo devices. Continue reading “Control Nest Devices with Amazon Echo”

Turning A Page With Your Voice

[Justin]’s friend [Steve] injured his spine a while ago, and after asking what would make [Steve]’s life simpler, the answer was easy. [Steve] missed reading books. Sure, e-readers exist, but you still need to turn the page. Now [Steve] can do that with his voice thanks to some microcontrollers, Bluetooth modules, and a voice recognition module.

A voice-activated page turner wasn’t the first attempt at giving [Steve] the ability to turn a page on a Kindle. The first prototype was a big blue button that sent a keyboard code for ‘right arrow’ over Bluetooth, turning a book one page at a time. This worked well until multiple pages turned, and with no back button it was a major nuisance.

After playing with the voice recognition in an Amazon Echo, [Steve] and [Justin] wondered if the same voice recognition technology could be applied to page turns on a Kindle. With a voice recognition Arduino shield from SparkFun it was easy to detect a ‘page down’ command. A Bluetooth module sends HID commands to a Kindle, allowing [Steve] to read a book with only his voice.

[Justin] put all the design files for this build up on Github.

Create Your Own J.A.R.V.I.S. Using Jasper

Tony Stark’s J.A.R.V.I.S. needs no introduction. With [Shubhro’s] and [Charlie’s] recent release of Jasper, an always on voice-controlled development platform for the Raspberry Pi, you too can start making your own J.A.R.V.I.S..

Both [Shubhro] and [Charlie] are undergraduate students at Princeton University, and decided to make their voice-controlled project open-source (code is available on GitHub). Jasper is build on inexpensive off-the-shelf hardware, making it very simple to get started. All you really need is an internet connected Raspberry Pi with a microphone and speaker. Simply install Jasper, and get started using the built in functionality that allows you to interface with Spotify, Facebook, Gmail, knock knock jokes, and more. Be sure to check out the demo video after break!

With the easy to use developer API, you can integrate Jasper into any of your existing Raspberry Pi projects with little effort. We could see Jasper integrated with wireless microphones and speakers to enable advanced voice control from anywhere in your home. What a great project! Thanks to both [Shubhro] and [Charlie] for making this open-source.

Continue reading “Create Your Own J.A.R.V.I.S. Using Jasper”

Hackaday Links: Sunday, June 30th, 2013


The race is on to squeeze cycles out of an 8MHz AVR chip in order to better drive the WS2811 LED protocol.

[Asher] doesn’t want to buy charcoal aquarium filters if he can just build them himself. He filled a couple of plastic drink bottles with charcoal, cut slots in the sides, and hooked them up to his pump system. A gallery of his work is available after the break.

Is the best way to make microscopic sized batteries to 3d print them? Harvard researchers think so. [Thanks Jonathan and Itay]

The Ouya gaming console is now available for the general public. [Hunter Davis] reports that the Retrode works with Ouya out-of-the-box. If you don’t remember hearing about it, Retrode reads your original cartridge ROMs for use with emulators.

Making a cluster computer out of 300 Raspberry Pi boards sounds like a nightmare. Organization is the key to this project.

Hackaday alum [Jeremy Cook] is working on an animatronic cigar box. Here he’s demonstrating it’s ability to listen for voice commands.

A Kelvin clips is a type of crocodile clip that has the two jaws insulated from each other. [Kaushlesh] came up with a way to turn them into tweezer probes.

Continue reading “Hackaday Links: Sunday, June 30th, 2013”