Silent Hack Could Send Malicious Instructions to Virtual Assistants

Privacy fears as new study finds that hackers can control Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant using secret commands

Privacy fears as new study finds that hackers can control Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant using secret commands

According to a report by NY Times, the researchers in China and the USA have begun testing how hidden commands can be sent to Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri that are undetectable to the human ear.

This month, researchers have demonstrated the ability to send instructions to smart devices that are undetectable to the human ear. The students were able to get smart devices to switch over to airplane mode and navigate to websites by hiding commands to do so in white noise that way played through YouTube videos and loudspeakers.

Researchers say that scammers could use this technology to ask your device to shop online, wire money or unlock doors.

Many people already consider voice assistants to be too invasive to let them listen in on conversations in their homes - but that's not the only thing they should worry about.

This is something that has only been done in lab conditions but speaking about the findings, which follow on from a study conducted in 2016 by the team, Nicholas Carlini, one of the paper's authors said: "My assumption is that the malicious people already employ people to do what I do".

Apple has additional security features to prevent the HomePod smart speaker from unlocking doors and requires users to provide extra authentication, such as unlocking their iPhone, in order to access sensitive data.

Now the technology is racing even further ahead of the law. None would say, for instance, whether or not their voice platform was capable of distinguishing between different audio frequencies and then blocking ultrasonic commands above 20kHz.

By making the research and code public, scientists at Berkeley hope to prevent this kind of vulnerability from landing in the wrong hands. During the Urabana-Champaign, they showed that though commands couldn't yet penetrate walls, they still had the potential to control smart devices through open windows in buildings. Both times, Mozilla's open-source software was fooled. More recently, researchers at Berkeley said they could hide commands into music recordings and spoken text. Nearly all of these devices are created to receive and analyze audio, including spoken commands, on a wide range of frequencies, including frequencies inaudible to the human ear.

They also embedded other commands into music clips.

"Companies have to ensure user-friendliness of their devices, because that's their major selling point", Tavish Vaidya, a researcher at Georgetown who wrote one of the first papers on audio attacks, told NY Times.

But Carlini explained their objective is to flag the security problem - and then try to fix it.

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