Spies are lurking on the interwebs, yes, but they’re also lurking on the gadgets you buy? Got Amazon Echo with Alexa? Alexa is always listening. Got Google Home gear with Assistant? Yes, always listening. Always listening to everything you do while you do it, whether you’re paying attention to what you say or not.
We call them smart speakers but they are more like smart spies. Yes, those are speakers but to get them to work each one needs a microphone, and guess what a mic does? It listens. There are spies in the speakers.
Dan Goodin was as alarmed as he should be and we should be on what has happened to Amazon and Google.
Workers for both companies routinely listen to audio of users—recordings of which can be kept forever—and the sounds the devices capture can be used in criminal trials.
Got a drug deal going down? Amazon and Google might be forced to spill the beans in court. Coveting your neighbor’s spouse? The details might get spilled in a court of law.
Even worse, when it comes to surreptitious listening, it seems as if there’s an app for that. What kind of apps?
Malicious apps developed by third parties and hosted by Amazon or Google. The threat isn’t just theoretical. Whitehat hackers at Germany’s Security Research Labs developed eight apps—four Alexa “skills” and four Google Home “actions”—that all passed Amazon or Google security-vetting processes.
How does such secret listening happen?
A user would say a phrase such as: “Hey Alexa, ask My Lucky Horoscope to give me the horoscope for Taurus” or “OK Google, ask My Lucky Horoscope to give me the horoscope for Taurus.”
That gets it started, the app then has permission to use the microphone and that’s all it needs.
Then the apps gave the impression they were no longer running when they, in fact, silently waited for the next phase of the attack.
The apps then logged conversations. Goodin outlines the details, but the gist is obvious. If it has a speaker to talk to you, then it has a microphone to listen to you.
Apple has over 1.5-billion devices in the wild– over 100-million Macs, over 300-million iPads, over 1-billion iPhones. All of them have Siri capability; which means speakers and microphones.
There are nearly 3-billion Android-based devices that work the same way. Speakers and microphones. Apple’s iOS, iPadOS, and macOS will not allow an app to use the microphone without your permission, but we may not always be aware of when the app stops listening to what we say, or what happens to what gets listened to or recorded.
Speakers, as a term, sounds innocuous. Microphones, required for interaction, can be dangerous.