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

Chinese and US spooks use sound to control AI assistants

Nonetheless, the technology could be used for darker ambitions like unlocking doors, wire money or shop online. 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.

In a new paper (PDF), Nicholas Carlini and David Wagner describe a method to imperceptibly modify an audio file so as to deliver a secret command; the embedded instruction is inaudible to the human ear, so there's no easy way of telling when Alexa might be asked by a hacker to add an item to your Amazon shopping cart, or worse.

Of course companies always deny that they are eavesdropping or recording your conversations, but the fact that our devices are constantly on the lookout for trigger words can be disconcerting for some.

Researchers in China past year demonstrated that ultrasonic transmissions could trigger popular voice assistants such as Siri or Alexa, in a method known as 'DolphinAttack'.


"My assumption is that the malicious people already employ people to do what I do", Carlini told the Times, with the paper adding that, "he was confident that in time he and his colleagues could mount successful adversarial attacks against any smart device system on the market". It's a fair warning to companies designing digital assistant to get out in front of the problem rather than be reactionary.

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. For its part, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has discouraged the practice, calling it "counter to the public interest".

Similar techniques have been demonstrated using ultrasonic frequencies. The attack first muted the phone so the owner wouldn't hear the system's responses, either. Nearly all of these devices are created to receive and analyze audio, including spoken commands, on a wide range of frequencies, including frequencies inaudible to the human ear.

The researchers have now demonstrated that automatic speech recognition, too, is vulnerable to such attacks. During the Urabana-Champaign, they showed that though commands couldn't yet penetrate walls, they still had the potential to control smart devices through open windows in buildings. The group provided samples of songs where voice commands have been embedded to make digital assistants do specific things, including visiting websites, turning on Global Positioning System, and making phone calls. How device makers respond will differ, especially as they balance security easily of use.

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