Voice-Activated Personal Assistants… Are They Safe?

One of the latest trends in technology could potentially put it’s users at risk for a breach of privacy. Lately, the big tech trend are the voice-controlled speakers. The two main companies that have run with this idea are Google and Amazon producing the Google Home and the Amazon Echo series. Both devices are controlled by speaking to them, and of course through an app on your phone. The app allows the users to customize things like responses and commands. But, are these devices really safe?

In a recent court case, prosecutors claimed to be getting recordings from several of the alleged killer’s Amazon Echo devices as evidence. They claimed that the devices may have recorded sounds during the time of the murder which happened in a man’s house. It turns out that they were not able to use that evidence for what ever reason and the case against the man was dropped. But that still brings up the question, how much are these devices hearing and do we have control over what they hear?

Since the devices are voice controlled, they are always on and listening for their wake word. People are getting concerned that “Since Google collects information about what users are searching for online, what phrases they’re using in their email, what directions they want in Maps and where they are day to day, what more information could it be collecting about what users are doing in their own homes?” People are (usually) already aware that search engines and apps are collecting information, but now it’s going beyond that into their very personal lives. Some argue that since so much is already online, it won’t be much different having something in your home picking up information. However, it raises a lot of concern for people today.

Probably the biggest concern with these devices is hackers. With the devices becoming more prevalent, hackers are obviously lurking and finding ways to hack these devices. Since they’re ‘always on’ it makes them even more risky to have in the home. Once they’ve been hacked, many of them would then have control over peoples houses, phones, bank accounts, and other things the devices are connected to. This puts lots of information at risk. Still the makers of the personal assistant devices say they’re safe.

What’s even scarier is the fact that they’re able to detect audio that is above the range for human hearing. Hackers have learned to record commands and different hacks in those audio ranges. When they’re played back through a video, phone, or other device, they they will have control over the assistant without the owner knowing. This new hack is called the DolphinAttack because of it’s frequencies being similar to those of dolphins ‘speak’. “They are able to open up malicious websites and even your door if you have a smart lock on it.”

So what can be done to prevent the misuse of these new devices? One major way is to turn off the devices when they’re not being used. Of course, that kind of defeats the purpose of having a hands-free voice-activated assistant, but if privacy is something you’re concerned about this is one of the best ways to protect yourself. The other option, which is out of our control, is that the manufacturers create the devices so that they can’t hear frequencies in that range. Whether or not they will change the upcoming versions is unknown, but it would sure be a huge help to device owners in the future!