Digital disaster – or how devices listen to everything you say.

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In the past, computers were simple, dumb and stupid but those days are long gone with the advent of the Internet and the ability to listen and interact with people through the power of speech recognition and text to speech. However, as more people work from home, what dangers are we unleashing?

Amazon Alexa

Amazon has been pushing it’s virtual assistant, Alexa to us for a while now. The Amazon Echo or the handset for their Amazon TV stick offers a connected experience. Alexa uses the Internet to function, so an array of microphones record your sounds and it uploads those sounds to a processing system where it interprets them into commands.

The microphones hear outside the human hearing range, so they can pick up infrasound (sounds higher than what we can hear) as well as ultrasound (sounds lower than what we can hear)

The doll's house order

In the US, one of the news channels covered a story where a young girl said “Alexa, please order me a doll’s house” and a doll’s house was delivered. They made the mistake of getting the girl to recite what she said live on air.

Every household watching that news channel and owned an Echo had a delivery of a Doll’s house. Amazon has added a security feature that can prevent unauthorised purchases, but it has to be enabled in the account.

Mysterious Google results

Whenever you talk about something to your friends or family and have an assistant, it is listening into your conversations and will send you “helpful” Google ads targeted around what you have talked about.

Corporate Espionage

Apart from the obvious removal of the base plate and soldering a bug into the microphone electronics, there are a number of problems within the Amazon Echo system. In order to widen the horizon of their products, Amazon allows the user to install “skills” that extend the features of the box.

Malicious “skills” exist that can turn the Echo system into a bug by setting the device to record for input. Ordinarily, Alexa would tell the user that it was doing that, but by inserting blank audio as the message, hackers found they can get the Echo to listen to people without being audible. Echo boxes light up when in operation, but not everyone will notice the light.

Another trick is that commands can be given over 100 metres simply by aiming a laser at the microphone and playing the sounds over the laser beam directly to the microphone, which the Echo box interprets as being spoken to by the user.

Protecting yourself

Google Assistant

Google provide an always-on assistant, to turn off the assistant (which doesn’t affect tap to voice)

  1. Open Settings on your Android device.
  2. Tap on Google.
  3. Scroll to Search, Assistant and Voice and tap.
  4. Tap on Assistant tab.
  5. Scroll to Assistant devices and tap.
  6. Slide the slider left to turn off Google Assistant.

OK Google

OK Google is similar to Google Assistant, except it has a wake word “OK Google” to wake it up and listen to you. To disable that feature:

  1. Open the Google app on your Android device.
  2. Tap on … more.
  3. Tap on Settings.
  4. Tap on Voice.
  5. Tap Voice Match.
  6. Slide Access with Voice Match; Unlock with Voice Match; While driving left to turn off as desired.

Siri

Siri is Apple’s integrated assistant. On iPhones and iPads you can disable Siri:

  1. Open Settings
  2. Scroll to Siri & Search
  3. Slide Listen for “Hey Siri” left to disable.
  4. Slide Press Home for Siri left (if you don’t want to wake Siri by your home button)

Voice Control

Voice Control is Apple’s offline assistant, you can use your voice to control your phone through basic commands. It is usually turned off by default on iOS 13 and later.

You can enable it:

  1. Open Settings
  2. Scroll to Accessibility
  3. Tap on Voice Control
  4. Slide Voice Control right to turn on.
  5. Say “Show me what to say” to get all the voice commands.

Cortana

Cortana is Microsoft’s assistant as of Windows 10. You can prevent Cortana from listening by turning off Online Speech Recognition:

  1. Hold down the Windows key and press i to open Settings.
  2. Click on Privacy.
  3. Click on Speech on the left hand side.
  4. Turn off Online Speech Recognition.

Alexa

Alexa is Amazon’s assistant, you manage the Echo devices through the Alexa app. Alexa sends everything to their developers by default, so it’s best to switch this off:

  1. Open the Alexa app.
  2. Tap on the Menu button in the top left corner.
  3. Select Alexa account.
  4. Choose Alexa privacy.
  5. Select “Manage how your data improves Alexa.”
  6. Turn off “Help Develop New Features.”
  7. Turn off “Use Messages to Improve Transcriptions.”

Enable Alexa Do Not Disturb

  1. Open the Alexa app.
  2. Select Devices.
  3. Select Echo & Alexa.
  4. Select your device.
  5. Select Do Not Disturb.
  6. Toggle Do Not Disturb on or off as required.

Solutions

With the rise in plug in virtual assistants, a solution is to use a cheap 7 day plug in time, set it to turn devices off at a set time (if you have a meeting at 10am on Monday and Thursday, have it power down the device a minute before and turn on an hour after, to allow for meeting overruns) then you know the boxes can’t be listening without power.  Turn off the devices at night so you can sleep peacefully.

Site the virtual assistant out of range of windows where they can be manipulated, make sure you set a pin on the device to prevent unauthorised manipulation and vet the “skills” you install thoroughly.

You can remove electronic devices from the room prior to meetings so that you aren’t distracted and reduce the risk of being overheard by an electronic listening device.

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