28 May 2018

Of Course, Alexa has Control of Your House

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Recent reports of the amazing eavesdropping power and home control Amazon’s Alexa has (similar to other voice-assistances) should not surprise. Its inherent in how these virtual assistants work.

Alexa has to always be listening to be able to respond to a voice command that may come from you yelling across the kitchen. She has to be ready to respond to back-and-forth question-response to receive further clarifying instructions if needed, so she often may keep listening in case you may add a detail. She needs to record the conversations onto Amazon computers and transcribe the resulting instruction, in order to process the data and invoke the commands. She takes good notes of what you would like to have happen (i.e. keep logs that Amazon staff can see, in case there is a need to trouble shoot). She has access (or will soon) to your internet connected devices (think door locks, heating, lights, and much more as people upgrade utilities).

And, you have invited her into your house to hang around the main areas where you may need her assistance.

So, considering you know all of this, why then might you be shocked by the reports that are starting to come in; about how Alexa may not be perfect, or may be “spying” on you?

Here are two interesting reports that may open your eyes to what is to come in the near future.

    • Amazon is reported to have confirmed that Alexa, while listening in to a muffled background conversation, misinterpreted the discussion for commands to record the conversation and send to someone in the contact list. There was shock all around when a stranger received a recording of someone else’ living room banter. Alexa keeps recordings of your conversations. Alexa can share these. It seems from the reports that Amazon staff can listen to recordings or read transcripts (in the name of “troubleshooting” or “improving” service).
  • Researchers have identified ways to create hidden commands that humans cannot hear, but Alexa (and Siri and Google Assistant) can. They can embed these commands into normal music that you may ask Alexa to play. When Alexa plays the song, the embedded (human inaudible) commands could be asking Alexa to open the door, record a conversation and send it somewhere, or to do other things (based on what devices are connected to your home network). Perhaps ultrasonic commands could be sent through your windows to awake Alexa and task her with an activity.

These are early days of Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things, and Digital Assistants. Alexa is just a few years old. She is like an old Motorola flip phone compared to the power and influence she will have when she becomes a teenager, in a few years to come.

Privacy may become a quaint concept for those that want to enjoy the latest technological innovations; for those that invite Amazon, Google, and Apple into their living rooms.