Careful Drilling Keeps Stadia From Listening In

Google’s fledgling Stadia service leverages the Chrome ecosystem to deliver streamed PC games on mobile devices, web browsers, and TVs. While not strictly required, the company even offers a dedicated Stadia controller that connects directly to the streaming servers over its own WiFi connection to reduce overall system latency. Of course, being a Google product, the controller has a tiny microphone that’s always listening in for interacting with the voice assistant.

[Heikki Juva] didn’t like the privacy implications of this, but unfortunately, there appears to be no way to turn off this “feature” in software. He decided the most expedient solution would be to simply remove the microphone from the controller, but it turns out there was a problem. By researching previous teardowns, he found out that it’s nearly impossible to take the controller apart without damaging it.

Getting close to the target.

So [Heikki] came up with a bold idea. Knowing roughly the position of the microphone, he would simply drill through the controller’s case to expose and ultimately remove the device. The operation was complicated by the fact that, from the teardown video he saw, he knew he’d also have to drill through the PCB to get to the microphone mounted to the opposite side. The only bright spot was that the microphone was on its own separate PCB, so physically destroying it probably wouldn’t take the whole controller out with it.

Now we don’t have to explain why drilling into a gadget powered by an internal lithium-ion battery is dangerous, and we’re not necessarily vouching for the technique [Heikki] used here. But when presented with a sealed unit like this, we admit there weren’t a lot of good options. The fact that the user should have to go to such ridiculous lengths to disable the microphone in a game controller is a perfect example of why we should try to avoid these adversarially designed devices, but that’s a discussion for another time.

In the end, with a steady and and increasingly larger bits, [Heikki] was able to put a 7 mm hole in the back of the Stadia controller that allowed him to extract the microphone in one piece. Removing the microphone seems to have had no adverse effect on the device as, surprisingly enough, it turns out that a game controller doesn’t actually need to listen to the player. Who knew?

As our devices get smarter, hidden microphones and cameras are unfortunately becoming more common. Thankfully a few manufacturers out there are taking the hint and including hardware kill switches for these intrusive features, but until that becomes the norm, hackers will have to come up with their own solutions.

Update 1/10/21: This article originally indicated that the microphone is always listening. While there is no hardware switch to disable the mic, there is a button which must be pressed to trigger the voice assistant functions. We have used strike through above to indicate the change to what was originally published.

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Speaker Snitch Tattles On Privacy Leaks

A wise senator once noted that democracy dies with thunderous applause. Similarly, it’s also how privacy dies, as we invite more and more smart devices willingly into our homes that are built by companies that don’t tend to have our best interests in mind. If you’re not willing to toss all of these admittedly useful devices out of the house but still want to keep an eye on what they’re doing, though, [Nick Bild] has a handy project that lets you keep an eye on them when they try to access the network.

The device is built on a Raspberry Pi that acts as a middle man for these devices on his home network. Any traffic they attempt to send gets sent through the Pi which sniffs the traffic via a Python script and is able to detect when they are accessing their cloud services. From there, the Pi sends an alert to an IoT Arduino connected to an LED which illuminates during the time in which the smart devices are active.

The build is an interesting one because many smart devices are known to listen in to day-to-day conversation even without speaking the code phrase (i.e. “Hey Google” etc.) and this is a great way to have some peace-of-mind that a device is inactive at any particular moment. However, it’s not a foolproof way of guaranteeing privacy, as plenty of devices might be accessing other services, and still other devices have  even been known to ship with hidden hardware.

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Remoticon Video: Making Microphones And Finding Sound

A yogurt lid and embroidery hoop are key components in building this microphone. It’s a super low tech, entry-level project to get into “found sound” and exactly what is needed to start hacking around in the audio world. This workshop presented by Helen Leigh and Robyn Hails shows you how to build a simple microphone and use it as the electronic gateway to all kinds of audio shenanigans.

Key to this build are the piezo element and an amp to process the signals it generates. All other materials are common around most households, but put them together as shown in this live hands-on seminar from the 2020 Hackaday Remoticon, and I think you’ll surprise yourself with how good the thing sounds!

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Hackaday Links: November 22, 2020

Remember DSRC? If the initialism doesn’t ring a bell, don’t worry — Dedicated Short-Range Communications, a radio service intended to let cars in traffic talk to each other, never really caught on. Back in 1999, when the Federal Communications Commission set aside 75 MHz of spectrum in the 5.9-GHz band, it probably seemed like a good idea — after all, the flying cars of the future would surely need a way to communicate with each other. Only about 15,000 vehicles in the US have DSRC, and so the FCC decided to snatch back the whole 75-MHz slice and reallocate it. The lower 45 MHz will be tacked onto the existing unlicensed 5.8-GHz band where WiFi now lives, providing interesting opportunities in wireless networking. Fans of chatty cars need not fret, though — the upper 30 MHz block is being reallocated to a different Intelligent Transportation System Service called C-V2X, for Cellular Vehicle to Everything, which by its name alone is far cooler and therefore more likely to succeed.

NASA keeps dropping cool teasers of the Mars 2020 mission as the package containing the Perseverance rover hurtles across space on its way to a February rendezvous with the Red Planet. The latest: you can listen to the faint sounds the rover is making as it gets ready for its date with destiny. While we’ve heard sounds from Mars before — the InSight lander used its seismometer to record the Martian windPerseverance is the first Mars rover equipped with actual microphones. It’s pretty neat to hear the faint whirring of the rover’s thermal management system pump doing its thing in interplanetary space, and even cooler to think that we’ll soon hear what it sounds like to land on Mars.

Speaking of space, back at the beginning of 2020 — you know, a couple of million years ago — we kicked off the Hack Chat series by talking with Alberto Caballero about his “Habitable Exoplanets” project, a crowd-sourced search for “Earth 2.0”. We found it fascinating that amateur astronomers using off-the-shelf gear could detect the subtle signs of planets orbiting stars half a galaxy away. We’ve kept in touch with Alberto since then, and he recently tipped us off to his new SETI Project. Following the citizen-science model of the Habitable Exoplanets project, Alberto is looking to recruit amateur radio astronomers willing to turn their antennas in the direction of stars similar to the Sun, where it just might be possible for intelligent life to have formed. Check out the PDF summary of the project which includes the modest technical requirements for getting in on the SETI action.

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Robots Can Finally Answer, Are You Talking To Me?

Voice Assistants, love them, or hate them, are becoming more and more commonplace. One problem for voice assistants is the situation of multiple devices listening in the same place. When a command is given, which device should answer? Researchers at CMU’s Future Interfaces Group [Karan Ahuja], [Andy Kong], [Mayank Goel], and [Chris Harrison] have an answer; smart assistants should try to infer if the user is facing the device they want to talk to. They call it direction-of-voice or DoV.

Currently, smart assistants use a simple race to see who heard it first. The reasoning is that the device you are closest to will likely hear it first. However, in situations with echos or when you’re equidistant from multiple devices, the outcome can seem arbitrary to a user.

The implementation of DoV uses an Extra-Trees Classifier from the python sklearn toolkit. Several other machine learning algorithms were considered, but ultimately efficiency won out and Extra-Trees was selected. Another interesting facet of the research was determining what facing really means. The team had humans ‘listeners’ stand in for smart assistants.  A ‘talker’ would speak the key phrase while the ‘listener’ determined if the talker was facing them or not. Based on their definition of facing, the system can determine if someone is facing the device with 90% accuracy that rises to 93% with per-room calibration.

Their algorithm as well as the data they collected has been open-sourced on GitHub. Perhaps when you’re building your own voice assistant, you can incorporate DoV to improve wake-word accuracy.

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Building A Top-Notch Electret Microphone

Electret microphones are capable of high-quality output, and are prized for their smooth frequency response. However, unlike other types, they can’t simply be plugged directly into a mixing desk. Instead, they require special high-impedence circuitry to extract the audio signal for recording. [DJJules] is a big fan of these microphones, and decided to build a high-quality, easy to use circuit that he has shared with the community. 

The goal of the project was to create a circuit to match the TSB2555B electret capsule that could be used with phantom power, and that could be built with easily obtainable parts. [DJJules] had used FETs in the past, but grew tired of routinely having to hunt for obsolete parts. Instead, this design relies on a dual OPA1642 op-amp, with its low quiescent current meaning it’s perfect for running off phantom power. This means the microphone needs no batteries, and using a dual op-amp enables the circuit to properly drive a balanced audio connection.

The circuit is designed to fit inside a common BM700 or BM800 microphone body, and the PCB can be ordered from PCBWay for those interested in building their own. There’s also a saddle on Shapeways that’s designed to neatly mount the electret capsule within the housing.

The final results are impressive, and this project would make a great entry into the DIY microphone space for anyone eager to start building their own gear. Of course, there are simpler builds if you’re looking for an easier way to get started. Video after the break.

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Push Pedal For Privacy

Many of us in the secret Hackaday lair use gaming hardware at our work desks because it is reliable and performs well. We are not alone, and maybe you are reading this on your coffee break over a 20-button mouse. We wager that [Thiago Ribeiro de Azeredo] has this mindset because he converted some old analog gaming pedals into teleconferencing tools for his home office. Now that he is not racing to the office, he has to take a lot of computer calls, and he must quickly and covertly mute his microphone when his howling son tries to take the stage.

The pedals were gathering dust when he started working from home, but they are unretired for the upgrade. Inside, there is no mystery, just a couple of spring-loaded variable resistors, so he adds an Arduino Nano a couple of 4.7 kΩ resistors to create a voltage divider. The Nano doesn’t have native Human Interface Device (HID) functionality, so a Python script receives the serial port signals and toggles an application bar notification so he can see the microphone status. With two pedals, he can press-to-talk or lock his microphone on and off. We have to wonder, did he write the software during a meeting?

We love the idea of controlling our battle stations with our feet or seeing a bunch of RGB keyboards used as a low-res display.