Attackers can use audio frequencies beyond human hearing to exploit smart speakers

Sarah Tew  CNET

While the undetected voice commands demonstrated by the researchers are harmless, it is easy how attackers can exploit the technique.

Researchers in China and the United States have discovered that Apple's Siri, Amazon's Alexa, and Google's Assistant can be controlled by hidden commands undetectable to the human ear, The New York Times is reporting. The New York Times reports that researchers in China and the USA have discovered a way to surreptitiously activate and command those virtual assistants by broadcasting instructions that are inaudible to the human ear. The students were able to get smart devices to switch over to airplane mode and navigate to websites by hiding commands to do so in white noise that way played through YouTube videos and loudspeakers.

"My assumption is that the malicious people already employ people to do what I do", Nicholas Carlini, a Ph.D. student in computer security at UC Berkeley and co-author of the study, tells WRAL Tech Wire.

Amazon said that it doesn't disclose specific security measures, but it has taken steps to ensure its Echo smart speaker is secure. Apple points out that HomePod can't do things like open doors, while iPhones have to be unlocked to execute certain Siri commands. Shen has looked into the possibility of commands outside the range of human hearing opening doors, placing online orders, and doing other malicious things without the owner of the device hearing a single thing. Android devices with voice-enabled search would respond by reading from the Whopper's Wikipedia page. While DolphinAttacks require the transmitter to be placed in close proximity to the smart device receiving the hidden message, last month researchers were able to send these subliminal message via ultrasound from 25 feet away.

They used a technique called DolphinAttack, which translates voice commands into ultrasonic frequencies that are too high for the human ear to recognize.

We need hardware makers and AI developers to tackle such subliminal messages, particularly for devices that don't have screens to give users visual feedback and warnings about having received secret commands. They were able to hide the command, "OK Google, browse to evil.com" in a recording of the spoken sentence, 'Without the dataset, the article is useless.' Humans can not detect the command. Researchers used the loophole to embed this command into a four-second clip from Verdi's Requiem in music files.

Testing against Mozilla's open source DeepSpeech voice recognition implementation, Carlini and Wagner achieved a 100 percent success rate without having to resort to large amounts of distortion, a hallmark of past attempts at creating audio attacks.

"We want to demonstrate that it's possible, and then hope that other people will say, "Okay this is possible, now let's try and fix it", Carlini added.

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