Since we’ve started inviting them into our homes, many of us have began casting a wary eye at our smart speakers. What exactly are they doing with the constant stream of audio we generate, some of it coming from the most intimate and private of moments? Sure, the big companies behind these devices claim they’re being good, but do any of us actually buy that?
It seems like the most prudent path is to not have one of these devices, but they are pretty useful tools. So this hardware mute switch for an Amazon Echo represents a middle ground between digital Luddism and ignoring the possible privacy risks of smart speakers. Yes, these devices all have software options for disabling their microphone arrays, but as [Andrew Peters] relates it, his concern is mainly to thwart exotic attacks on smart speakers, some of which, like laser-induced photoacoustic attacks, we’ve previously discussed. And for that job, only a hardware-level disconnect of the microphones will do.
To achieve this, [Andrew] embedded a Seeeduino Xiao inside his Echo Dot Gen 2. The tiny microcontroller grounds the common I²S data line shared by the seven (!) microphones in the smart speaker, effective disabling them. Enabling and disabling the mics is done via the existing Dot keys, with feedback provided by tones sent through the Dot speaker. It’s a really slick mod, and the amount of documentation [Andrew] did while researching this is impressive. The video below and the accompanying GitHub repo should prove invaluable to other smart speaker hackers.
Continue reading ““Alexa, Stop Listening To Me Or I’ll Cut Your Ears Off””
Smart speakers have always posed a risk to privacy and security — that’s just the price we pay for getting instant answers to life’s urgent and not-so-urgent questions the moment they arise. But it seems that many owners of the 76 million or so smart speakers on the active install list have yet to wake up to the reality that this particular trick of technology requires a microphone that’s always listening. Always. Listening.
With so much of the world’s workforce now working from home due to the global SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, smart speakers have suddenly become a big risk for business, too — especially those where confidential conversations are as common and crucial as coffee.
Imagine the legions of lawyers out there, suddenly thrust from behind their solid-wood doors and forced to set up ramshackle sub rosa sanctuaries in their homes to discuss private matters with their equally out-of-sorts clients. How many of them don’t realize that their smart speaker bristles with invisible thorns, and is even vulnerable to threats outside the house? Given the recent study showing that smart speakers can and do activate accidentally up to 19 times per day, the prevalence of the consumer-constructed surveillance state looms like a huge crisis of confidentiality.
So what are the best practices of confidential work in earshot of these audio-triggered gadgets?
Continue reading “Stay Smarter Than Your Smart Speaker”
In the spring of 2018, a couple in Portland, OR reported to a local news station that their Amazon Echo had recorded a conversation without their knowledge, and then sent that recording to someone in their contacts list. As it turned out, the commands Alexa followed came were issued by television dialogue. The whole thing took a sitcom-sized string of coincidences to happen, but it happened. Good thing the conversation was only about hardwood floors.
But of course these smart speakers are listening all the time, at least locally. How else are they going to know that someone uttered one of their wake words, or something close enough? It would sure help a lot if we could change the wake word to something like ‘rutabaga’ or ‘supercalifragilistic’, but they probably have ASICs that are made to listen for a few specific words. On the Echo for example, your only choices are “Alexa”, “Amazon”, “Echo”, or “Computer”.
So how often are smart speakers listening when they shouldn’t? A team of researchers at Boston’s Northeastern University are conducting an ongoing study to determine just how bad the problem really is. They’ve set up an experiment to generate unexpected activation triggers and study them inside and out.
Continue reading “Smart Speakers “Accidentally” Listen Up To 19 Times A Day”
Careful, the walls have ears. Or more specifically, the smart speaker on the table has ears, as does the phone in your pocket, the fitness band on your wrist, possibly the TV, the fridge, the toaster, and maybe even the toilet. Oh, and your car is listening to you too. Probably.
How does one fight this profusion of listening devices? Perhaps this wearable smart device audio jammer will do the trick. The idea is that the MEMS microphones that surround us are all vulnerable to jamming by ultrasonic waves, due to the fact that they have a non-linear response to ultrasonic signals. The upshot of that is when a MEMS hears ultrasound, it creates a broadband signal in the audible part of the spectrum. That creates a staticky noise that effectively drowns out any other sounds the microphone might be picking up.
By why a wearable? Granted, [Yuxin Chin] and colleagues from the University of Chicago have perhaps stretched the definition of that term a tad with their prototype, but it turns out that moving the jammer around does a better job of blocking sounds than a static jammer does. The bracelet jammer is studded with ultrasonic transducers that emit overlapping fields and result in zones of constructive and destructive interference; the wearer’s movements vary the location of the dead spots that result, improving jamming efficacy. Their paper (PDF link) goes into deeper detail, and a GitHub repository has everything you need to roll your own.
We saw something a bit like this before, but that build used white noise for masking, and was affixed to the smart speaker. We’re intrigued by a wearable, especially since they’ve shown it to be effective under clothing. And the effect of ultrasound on MEMS microphones is really interesting.
Continue reading “Wearable Cone Of Silence Protects You From Prying Ears”
Smart speakers have proliferated since their initial launch earlier this decade. The devices combine voice recognition and assistant functionality with a foreboding sense that paying corporations for the privilege of having your conversations eavesdropped upon could come back to bite one day. For this reason, [Yihui] is attempting to build an open-source smart speaker from scratch.
The initial prototype uses a Raspberry Pi 3B and a ReSpeaker microphone array. In order to try and bring costs down, development plans include replacing these components with a custom microphone array PCB and a NanoPi board, then implementing basic touch controls to help interface with the device.
There’s already been great progress, with the build showing off some nifty features. Particularly impressive is the ability to send WiFi settings to the device using sound, along with the implementation of both online and offline speech recognition capabilities. This is useful if your internet goes down but you still want your digital pal to turn out the lights at bed time.
It’s not the first time we’ve seen a privacy-focused virtual assistant, and we hope it’s not the last. Video after the break.
Continue reading “Building A Smart Speaker From Scratch”
To quote the greatest philosopher of the 20th century: “The future ain’t what it used to be.” Take personal assistants such as Amazon Echo and Google Home. When first predicted by sci-fi writers, the idea of instant access to the sum total of human knowledge with a few utterances seemed like a no-brainer; who wouldn’t want that? But now that such things are a reality, having something listening to you all the time and potentially reporting everything it hears back to some faceless corporate monolith is unnerving, to say the least.
There’s a fix for that, though, with this cone of silence for your smart speaker. Dubbed “Project Alias” by [BjørnKarmann], the device consists of a Raspberry Pi with a couple of microphones and speakers inside a 3D-printed case. The Pi is programmed to emit white noise from its speakers directly into the microphones of the Echo or Home over which it sits, masking out the sounds in the room while simultaneously listening for a hot-word. It then mutes the white noise, plays a clip of either “Hey Google” or “Alexa” to wake the device up, and then business proceeds as usual. The bonus here is that the hot-word is customizable, so that in addition to winning back a measure of privacy, all the [Alexas] in your life can get their names back too. The video below shows people interacting with devices named [Doris], [Marvin], [Petey], and for some reason, [Milkshake].
We really like this idea, and the fact that no modifications are needed to the smart speaker is pretty slick, as is the fact that with a few simple changes to the code and the print files it can be used with any smart speaker. And some degree of privacy from the AI that we know is always listening through these things is no small comfort either.
Continue reading “Win Back Some Privacy With A Cone Of Silence For Your Smart Speaker”