Research Finds Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant Susceptible to Inaudible Commands

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For many people, digital assistants have become a party of daily life-you might have Siri set a reminder for an upcoming appointment on your iPhone, or tell Alexa to order more laundry detergent from Amazon. However, this latest one is different because it could victimize even the most careful users, as the subliminal voice commands are undetectable to the human ear.

The 2016 research demonstrated commands hidden in white noise, but the students have this month managed to do the same thing in music and spoken text. But can they be used for nefarious purposes? In doing so, they've been able to make these systems dial phone numbers, open websites, and more.

Now before you toss your Echo into the ocean, you should know that there's no evidence that this type of attack has ever happened outside the lab. According to a research conducted by a group of students from Berkley, hidden commands can be issued to popular virtual assistants using recordings or music.

"My assumption is that the malicious people already employ people to do what I do", he said. Speech recognition systems typically translate each sound to a letter, eventually compiling those into words and phrases.

Carlini and Wagner's research builds on past work that has shown that deep learning for computer image recognition is vulnerable to adversarial perturbation.

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That warning was borne out in April, when researchers at the University of IL at Urbana-Champaign demonstrated ultrasound attacks from 71/2 metres away. This way, they found out the devices can perceive a series of silent commands that we are incapable of detecting. The researchers achieved this by making changes to audio files, which cancelled out the sound that the speech recognition system was supposed to hear and replace it with a sound that would be understood differently by machines while being virtually undetectable to the human ear.

They also embedded other commands into music clips.

Called "adversarial audio", the trick involves creating "a special "loss function" based on CTC [connectionist temporal classification] Loss that takes a desired transcription and an audio file as input, and returns a real number as output", said U.C. Berkeley PhD candidate Nicholas Carlini.

Carlini added: "We want to demonstrate that it's possible and then hope that other people will say, 'OK this is possible, now let's try and fix it'". Apple says that its HomePod speakers prevent some commands like unlocking doors and that iPhones must be unlocked before using Siri's voice commands.

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