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Secret signals



Secret signals

Internet-connected voice assistants prove vulnerable to hacking

Hackers always seem to find a way to exploit emerging technologies, whether by picking the digital locks on cars and hotel rooms or by cloning credit card numbers on a website. The explosion in popularity of artificially intelligent voice assistants such as Alexa and Siri presents a lucrative target for exploitation, and researchers are now discovering special vulnerabilities in voice-recognition technology.

Scientists at Ruhr University Bochum have demonstrated that hackers could hide voice commands in other audio, even something as innocuous as the sound of chirping birds, according to Fast Company. They could launch such attacks via a TV commercial or radio program, potentially allowing hackers to make purchases, steal identifying information, or even control an internet-connected security system.

The microphones in smart speakers can also detect frequencies outside the range of normal human hearing. In September, researchers at Zhejiang University in China encoded voice commands in low-frequency sounds only the voice assistant could “hear.” In what they called a “Dolphin Attack,” the researchers tricked Apple’s voice assistant, Siri, into initiating a FaceTime call and manipulating the navigation system on an Audi automobile.

“Right now, the dangers of voice-command hijacking seem mostly theoretical and isolated,” Rafael Lourenco, executive vice president at retail fraud prevention company ClearSale, wrote for tech website VentureBeat. “But the recent past has shown us that fraudsters adapt quickly to new technology.”

While technology companies work to fix vulnerabilities in their voice assistants, consumers can protect their internet-connected devices and data by following good safety practices: Lourenco recommends using strong passwords and two-factor authentication and setting up a PIN to protect voice assistant tasks that involve home security or personal, financial, and health data.


A Rainforest Connection station (Handout)

Sounds of the jungle

A San Francisco–based startup has developed a system for monitoring thousands of acres of rainforest to combat the threat of deforestation due to illegal logging. Powered by solar panels, the system uses the microphones on repurposed smartphones to listen to the sounds in the forest. Artificial intelligence allows the system to distinguish the noise of chainsaws and vehicles from bird or animal noises and alert authorities to illegal activity.

“The moment a chainsaw goes off, our mic in the trees picks it up and we can then alert local rangers to stop people in the act,” Topher White, co-founder of the startup Rainforest Connection, told tech website Silicon Republic. He described the noise detector stations as “an old cellphone … in a box.”

Rainforest Connection currently monitors thousand of hectares of rainforest in 10 countries, according to its website. It plans to expand to 20 countries covering more than 1,500 square miles with a five-year goal of protecting about 10,000 square miles of rainforest.



Drug disposal app

Google, in an effort to combat the growing opioid crisis, has added to its Maps application a feature identifying places around the country where people can easily dispose of old prescription medications. 

As of the Feb. 21 launch, the app recorded 3,500 drop-off locations, including at hospitals, fire stations, and police stations in seven states: Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Google plans to expand the feature over the coming months in partnership with the Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, state governments, and private companies such as CVS and Walgreens.


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  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Thu, 03/07/2019 10:26 pm

    I believe that voice assistants evidence an increasingly flabby culture, in addition to posing security risks.  Therefore our household will never knowingly use voice assistance, as long one lives in it who is physically able to manage its affairs.