Sabotage in the Home

by wjw on May 16, 2018

Of course you knew that when you installed Alexa, Siri, or Google’s Assistant in your home, you were installing a spy.  You just trusted that Amazon, Apple, or Google would use your information for good, or at least would not actively harm you.

What you may not have known is that these assistants aren’t just spies, they’re potential enemy saboteurs.

Over the last two years, researchers in China and the United States have begun demonstrating that they can send hidden commands that are undetectable to the human ear to Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant. Inside university labs, the researchers have been able to secretly activate the artificial intelligence systems on smartphones and smart speakers, making them dial phone numbers or open websites. In the wrong hands, the technology could be used to unlock doors, wire money or buy stuff online — simply with music playing over the radio.

A group of students from University of California, Berkeley, and Georgetown University showed in 2016 that they could hide commands in white noise played over loudspeakers and through YouTube videos to get smart devices to turn on airplane mode or open a website.

This month, some of those Berkeley researchers published a research paper that went further, saying they could embed commands directly into recordings of music or spoken text. So while a human listener hears someone talking or an orchestra playing, Amazon’s Echo speaker might hear an instruction to add something to your shopping list.

Try to prove that you didn’t order a thing when the command came from your own phone.  And guess what— it’s not even illegal!

There is no American law against broadcasting subliminal messages to humans, let alone machines. The Federal Communications Commission discourages the practice as “counter to the public interest,” and the Television Code of the National Association of Broadcasters bans “transmitting messages below the threshold of normal awareness.” Neither say anything about subliminal stimuli for smart devices.

Fortunately there’s a simple solution.  Just turn that shit off!

Etaoin Shrdlu May 17, 2018 at 6:31 am

“There is no American law against broadcasting subliminal messages to humans, let alone machines.”

Well, obviously, there should be, and then we’d never have to worry about anyone breaking that law. Amirite?!

Susan May 17, 2018 at 1:25 pm

My latest phone came with Google Assistant, but to my knowledge I have never activated it. I read about this a day or two ago, but haven’t yet taken any steps to be sure that we’re not being spied on. Been too busy being sure that Windows 10 isn’t sending all my personal info back to Microsoft.

wjw May 17, 2018 at 7:00 pm

Etaoin, making it illegal wouldn’t stop it from happening, but it would allow prosecution if the malefactor is caught.

Ralf T. Dog May 17, 2018 at 10:09 pm

Other than getting rid of the devices or turning the assistants off, just set them to only execute voice commands when you press the button. From Google or Apple’s perspective, the best solution would be to ignore very high frequency voices. It would also help to code them to ignore commands if there is a very low signal/noise ratio.

Etaoin Shrdlu May 21, 2018 at 12:07 pm


But does it matter? As far as activating Siri/Alexa/whatever, it’s prosecutable under existing hacking laws. Hell, practically everything is. The Feds hounded Aaron Swartz to suicide even though MIT didn’t care that he was downloading science articles off their intranet. The Feds have prosecuted people merely for accessing computers that were left open (IIRC, it was either Apple or AT&T that left some URL completely unprotected) — even though the person only looked and then informed the site owner about the vulnerability.

And AFAIK subliminal messages to humans aren’t particularly effective, even if the advertising industry thinks that they’re cool. A quick skim of a couple of articles online says that some mild effects have been found, but they’re not “mind control” aside from Homer Simpson. Even Brunner’s “The Squares of the City” mentioned how limited subliminals were when it was published.

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