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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.

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Nondisposable proposal

Major brands launch experiment to reduce waste through reusable containers

Until well into the 20th century, most Americans had their milk delivered to their door in refillable glass bottles. The milkman also picked up the empties. Now a coalition of major consumer brands is testing a packaging and delivery platform that will use the “milkman model” for products as diverse as ice cream, deodorant, and laundry detergent.

The consortium of 25 companies—including such big names as Procter & Gamble, Nestlé, and PepsiCo —worked with recycling experts for more than a year to develop the platform, called Loop. Online-ordered products would arrive in a reusable tote that would also serve as a receptacle for empty containers. A delivery service would pick up the full tote and return it to a facility where the containers are cleaned, sterilized, and prepared for refilling.

Loop’s developers believe that, while recycling has its place, the waste problem is really a disposability problem.

“To us, the root cause of waste is not plastic, per se,” Tom Szaky, CEO and founder of TerraCycle, one of the project’s partners, told Fast Company. “It’s using things once, and that’s really what Loop tries to change as much as possible.”

In a pilot program to be launched this spring in New York and Paris, customers will be able to buy familiar brands such as Pantene shampoo and Tide detergent in packages designed for up to 100 uses. While the cost of the products will be about the same as those bought in single-use containers, the user will also have to pay a refundable deposit of between $1 and $10 per container, as well as some shipping charges.

Even though customers won’t have to clean the empty containers—a barrier to many who would otherwise recycle—critics of the initiative are skeptical whether the project will ever be profitable or will change consumer behavior. 

However, advocates say it’s significant that major brands are coming together to solve the plastic waste problem. Of the 10 companies Greenpeace lists as the world’s largest contributors to plastic waste, eight are part of the Loop consortium and the other two are in talks to join, according to Fast Company.

In addition to reducing plastic waste, an industrywide shift to reusable containers would ultimately reduce manufacturing and energy costs, proponents say. The key, they believe, is making the new paradigm attractive for consumers.

“You simply have to start somewhere to test it and see what the barriers are and who actually buys into the model,” Unilever’s research and development chief, David Blanchard, told The Wall Street Journal. “If there are sufficient people then you can scale it.”

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A man casts his ballot during a nationwide popular vote in 2014 at a polling station in Switzerland. (Michael Buholzer/AFP/Getty Images)

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Hackers’ election

Switzerland calls on computer hackers to test its e-voting system

The Swiss government is offering up to $150,000 in bug bounties to white-hat hackers who successfully discover vulnerabilities in the country’s internet voting system. Hackers who register for the “Public Intrusion Test” will search for and report on vulnerabilities during a dummy election run by the Swiss postal system from Feb. 24 through March 24, the duration of a typical voting period in the country.

The test is the latest in a series of more than 300 e-voting trials over the past 14 years, according to a Swiss news report. In December, the Swiss government drafted a bill to make electronic voting permanent, stating that it wanted to introduce e-voting gradually as an option alongside ballot boxes and postal voting.

Hackers who discover vulnerabilities undetectable by voters or auditors can receive bounties of as much as $30,000 to $50,000. At the lower end of the scale, hackers can earn $100 by simply highlighting failures to follow best practices.

Demand for electronic voting is high among Swiss citizens, particularly for those living abroad. The Organization of the Swiss Abroad is pushing for e-voting to be made available for all ex-pats by 2021. Currently, e-voting is available in 10 of the country’s 26 cantons (political districts), and the government hopes to expand that to 17 by October.

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