Virtual personal assistants can be hijacked by subliminal messages embedded in music

Virtual personal assistants can be hijacked by subliminal messages embedded in music

While Amazon, Apple, and Google are busy making their voice assistants smarter, a group of researchers claims that the present iterations of the companies' voice assistants are vulnerable. Or that Google just this week announced more native control over kitchen appliances and a strikingly human sounding AI that can make calls on your behalf to set up appointments. This eventually makes the smart devices hear commands that are not detectable to the human ear.

Over the past two years, researchers have worked within university labs on hidden commands that only Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant will pick up, and not humans. These commands were reportedly able to activate the artificial intelligence (AI) systems on smartphones and smart speakers to dial phone numbers or open websites - all without the consent of end users.

Some of the things that can be done without an owner's knowledge are seemingly pretty mundane, like dialing a phone number or visiting a website. 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.

Carlini's team created recordings designed to fool Google Assistant, but in reality they are only successful against Mozilla's DeepSpeech.

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

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The latest research is similar to a paper published last September by scientists at Zhejiang University in China.

Carlini isn't alone in flagging the problem of smart devices hearing things (and acting on them) without actually being asked by users. Researchers at the University of IL demonstrated ultrasound attacks were possible from 25 feet away. This way, they found out the devices can perceive a series of silent commands that we are incapable of detecting.

In response to the article by the American publication, all three companies have lent assurances that their smart speakers are secure.

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. In fact, Amazon filed a patent back in 2014 called, "Audible Command Filtering", that describes different techniques to prevent Alexa from waking up. This raises even bigger security concerns. Nonetheless, this highlights an issue that could pose of an obstacle in the future. However, they can be heard and used by the machine learning software that's used to power these digital assistants.

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