Go to sleep, Alexa. It’s not OK, Google

Financial Chronicle - - EDIT, OPED, THE WORKS - LEONID BERSHIDSKY

THE rapidly grow­ing mar­ket for voice-con­trolled speak­ers prob­a­bly needed some­thing like the Google Home Mini disas­ter to hap­pen. Now even those cus­tomers who were obliv­i­ous to the risks of plac­ing such a de­vice in their homes will want to con­sider the se­cu­rity im­pli­ca­tions and manufacturers won’t be able to get away with be­ing so dis­mis­sive.

Ear­lier this month, Artem Rus­sakovskii, who runs the An­droid Po­lice blog, picked up a pre-mar­ket ver­sion of the Google Home Mini to review. This is the com­pact ver­sion of the Google Home speaker which you can ask to play mu­sic, do a web search or a unit con­ver­sion or ad­just your smart ther­mo­stat. But in­stead of wait­ing for com­mands, Rus­sakovskii’s ma­chine started re­act­ing to a TV pro­gramme he was watch­ing by re­peat­edly say­ing it didn’t un­der­stand. Those dig­i­tal as­sis­tants do that a lot, but usu­ally when wo­ken up by a com­mand like “OK Google” or “Alexa” — or by some­thing they have “mis­heard” as such a com­mand. Rusakovskii was alarmed be­cause nei­ther he nor the TV was say­ing any­thing sim­i­lar, and the Home Mini kept re­act­ing. He went to his Google ac­count and dis­cov­ered thou­sands of ac­tiv­ity records: The de­vice had been record­ing ev­ery­thing that went on in its vicin­ity.

Rus­sakovskii is one of the tech boost­ers who have sold the prod­uct cat­e­gory to the world so suc­cess­fully that this year; 35.6 mil­lion Amer­i­cans are ex­pected to use a de­vice like the Ama­zon Echo or the Google Home at least once a month. To him, peo­ple who warned of the dan­gers of plac­ing such a gad­get in the home were “tin-hat wear­ers.” “I didn’t give too much thought to these pri­vacy con­cerns be­cause they all sounded the­o­ret­i­cal and un­likely,” Rus­sakovski wrote in a post de­scrib­ing his alarm­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

After the blog­ger con­tacted Google, the com­pany re­acted quickly, send­ing an em­ployee to pick up the de­vice and soon rolling out a soft­ware update that shut off the touch panel at the top of the spher­oid de­vice. The panel pro­vided an ad­di­tional way of wak­ing up the de­vice — with a fin­ger rather than with voice, but it also served as the pause but­ton and vol­ume con­trol for mu­sic and the off but­ton for the alarm func­tion. Google Home Minis will now ship with­out the touch func­tion­al­ity be­cause it’s too late to fix the pan­els, which, on some de­vices, re­act to “phan­tom events.”

“We take user pri­vacy and prod­uct qual­ity con­cerns very se­ri­ously,” Google said in a state­ment. “Although we only re­ceived a few re­ports of this is­sue, we want peo­ple to have com­plete peace of mind while us­ing Google Home Mini.”

Peace of mind, how­ever, is ex­actly the wrong out­come here. De­fec­tive hard­ware is not the only po­ten­tial prob­lem. These de­vices are lis­ten­ing all the time, and the record­ing func­tion can be trig­gered by a hack, an ac­ci­den­tal noise, a soft­ware glitch. What hap­pened to Rusakovskii merely con­firms Mur­phy’s law: any­thing that can go wrong will go wrong.

The US Na­tional In­sti­tute of Stan­dards and Tech­nol­ogy’s Hyunji Chung, Michaela Iorga and Jef­frey Voas and Korea Univer­sity’s Sangjin Lee, no “tin-hat wear­ers,” dis­cussed the prod­uct cat­e­gory’s dan­gers in a re­cent pa­per. They ex­plained how com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween an “in­tel­li­gent dig­i­tal as­sis­tant” and the pro­ducer’s cloud, where re­quests are pro­cessed, could be in­ter­cepted to hack into the de­vices. “The po­ten­tial for ac­ci­den­tal record­ing means that users do not nec­es­sar­ily have com­plete con­trol over what au­dio gets trans­mit­ted,” they wrote. Apart from spy­ing on a house­hold, the voice record­ings could be used to im­per­son­ate the speak­ers and wreak havoc with their lives, they pointed out. For years, we have rou­tinely ig­nored these kinds of warn­ings, pre­fer­ring to lis­ten to tech com­pa­nies’ as­sur­ances that the de­vices are safe. Peo­ple like be­ing in­no­va­tive and hate look­ing para­noid. In­creas­ingly, peo­ple must ask, are we will­ing to trade the pri­vacy of ev­ery­thing that goes on in our homes for a prod­uct that com­pletely du­pli­cates what our smart­phones can al­ready do?

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