Voice assistant devices could be more vulnerable than we think

Sarah Tew  CNET

Computers can be fooled into identifying an airplane as a cat just by changing a few pixels of a digital image; researchers can make a self-driving auto swerve or speed up simply by pasting small stickers on road signs and confusing the vehicle's electronic vision system.

Latest research claims that these vulnerabilities could leverage inaudible commands at a frequency beyond human ability to launch attacks such as sending messages, making purchases, and so on, all without the user realizing it. Apple says that its HomePod won't act on commands that unlock doors, and iPhone and iPod models must be unlocked before Siri can access personal data, call up websites or open apps.

A new study claims that Google Assistant, and other voice command-based AI services like Alexa and Siri, may be vulnerable to subsonic commands. Carlini's group created an even more ingenious method. The idea was to get Android devices to read aloud the ingredients of the burger from the Whopper's Wikipedia page. It turns out, anything that can be spoken to is also prone to subliminal messaging.

Researchers at China's Zhejiang University published a study previous year that showed numerous most popular smart speakers and smartphones, equipped with digital assistants, could be easily tricked into being controlled by hackers.

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Like the Berkeley study, they used a technique that translates voice commands into ultrasonic frequencies that are too high for the human ear to recognize. They could cover these silent commands with white noise and thus communicate with the smart assistants.

The almost-similar waveform can be used to trick digital assistants that utilise neural networks into transcribing audio to letters, and to then assemble these into commands to control digital assistants.

This year, another group of Chinese and U.S. researchers from China's Academy of Sciences and other institutions showed that they could control voice-activated devices with commands embedded in songs that can be broadcast over the radio or played on services like YouTube.

Taking the research to the next level, some of the same Berkeley researchers published a paper this month, in which they demonstrated that they could insert silent commands into spoken text and music files. They say that they have created a way to get rid of sounds that would normally be heard by Google Assistant, Siri and Alexa, and replace them with audio files that can not be heard by the human ear. This isn't the first time we've seen smart devices go haywire due to ambient factors.

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