Always-on listening devices were popularised with the first Moto X back in 2013. Saying “Ok Google Now” could wake the phone up even from standby, because dedicated hardware was constantly listening to ambient sounds to pick up that catchphrase. We’ve come a long way since then, and today you have dedicated voice assistants like Google Home and Amazon Echo, that can be activated hands-free, by simply saying the hotword “Ok Google” or “Alexa” respectively. Now however, researchers claim they can use hidden voice commands to access the assistants.
The Atlantic reported about researchers from the UC Berkley and Georgetown University, who claim they were successful at waking up such devices using sounds that might come across as garbled noises to you.
It is fair to note that for long, the Google Now app has had something called ‘Trusted Voice’, where your voice samples are used to identify if it’s the owner saying “Ok Google”. But turning on this feature gives a warning saying, “This can be less secure: a similar voice or recording of yours could unlock your device”. Suffice to say that it’s not a reliable authentication mechanism unlike say, the fingerprint scanner on your phone.
There have been instances in the past where where many Amazon Echos ordered dollhouses for their owners by simply listening to a command playing on TV. Our phones may also be listening to ultrasonic sounds for better ad tracking. It just goes to show that the always-on, voice activated assistants still have a long way to go, until we can trust them to do critical things like making payments or controlling doors at our home.