Hearing voices: Researchers show how Siri and Alexa could be manipulated


The commands aren't discernible to humans, but will be gobbled up by the Echo or Home speakers, the research suggests. The researchers were able to secretly activate the three AI assistants, making them dial phone numbers or open websites. Interestingly, Amazon, Apple, and Google are yet to bring a fix for the issue that can impact a large number of smart device users.

This is something that has only been done in lab conditions but speaking about the findings, which follow on from a study conducted in 2016 by the team, Nicholas Carlini, one of the paper's authors said: "My assumption is that the malicious people already employ people to do what I do". While a smart device owner might only hear music, underneath there are commands aimed at the device's virtual personal assistant.

There is already a history of smart devices being exploited for commercial gains through spoken commands.

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As the Times points out, voice recognition systems are set up to recognize each sound you make as a letter, which the system then collects into complete words and phrases.

'By starting with any arbitrary waveform, such as music, we can embed speech into audio that should not be recognized as speech; and by choosing silence as the target, we can hide audio from a speech-to-text system, ' the study explained. Both Amazon and Google make sure that it's the user's voice giving the command before acting on them.

"Last year, Burger King caused a stir with an online ad that purposely asked 'O.K., Google, what is the Whopper burger?"

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While Amazon, Apple, and Google are busy making their voice assistants smarter, a group of researchers claims that the present iterations of the companies' voice assistants are vulnerable.

There is no United States law against broadcasting subliminal messages to humans, let alone machines. A technique called DolphinAttack shows that subliminal messages can even be embedded in sounds inaudible to the human ear. They were able to hide the command, "OK Google, browse to evil.com" in a recording of the spoken sentence, 'Without the dataset, the article is useless.' Humans can not detect the command. The receiver must be close to the device, but a more powerful ultrasonic transmitter can help increase the effective range. In addition, researchers at Princeton and China's Zhejiang University have demonstrated what they are calling the "DolphinAttack". While the commands couldn't penetrate walls, they could control smart devices through open windows from outside a building.

You can hear the audio files on Carlini's website.

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But Carlini explained their objective is to flag the security problem - and then try to fix it.