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Hey, Alexa, who's listening right now?

UC engineers are making smart speakers more secure for consumers

Voice-activated speakers like Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri and Google Home are becoming ubiquitous in homes, cars and offices.

These digital assistants make it easy to get travel directions, find a restaurant’s phone number or do a myriad of other daily hands-free tasks. These devices can adjust a home’s heating or air conditioning, open locked doors remotely or link to security cameras or baby monitors.

But computer scientists at the University of Cincinnati are investigating potential security weaknesses that hackers could exploit.

“We have millions of smart speakers in our homes these days,” said Boyang Wang, assistant professor in UC’s College of Engineering and Applied Science.

Home electronics including a desktop computer and voice-activated iPad.

Smart speakers have become ubiquitous devices in our homes and offices. More than 157 million are found in U.S. households, according to marketing estimates. UC is trying to improve their security. Photo/Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative + Brand

“People use them every day. It’s convenient. On the other hand, we don’t have a good understanding of the vulnerabilities they have.”

Wang was awarded a two-year National Science Foundation grant for $175,000 to investigate one particular gap that malicious actors could exploit in smart speakers.

The project demonstrates UC's commitment to research as outlined in President Neville Pinto's strategic direction called Next Lives Here.

Security loopholes

The growing popularity of these devices has raised flags about their security.

Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that hackers could activate home speakers from 25 feet away using a frequency of sound inaudible to the human ear. And at the University of Michigan, scientists directed laser light at the microphones of smart speakers more than 360 feet away — farther than a football field. And by changing the intensity of the light, they could give the speaker commands it would follow.

“That’s a pretty cool attack, using laser light,” UC’s Wang said. “This technology is relatively new. Everyone has the devices, but there hasn’t been a lot of research to understand the privacy issues.”

You could imagine a scenario where you would know when someone was leaving the house."

Sean Kennedy, UC graduate and computer scientist

An iPhone screen reads, "Hey Siri, who's listening to this conversation?" and the response "Let me listen."

Voice-activated web assistants allow for convenient hands-free searching of the internet. Computer scientists at UC are working to improve their security. Photo/Michael Miller

Wang is an expert in applied cryptography and teaches network security, data security and privacy. He holds several patents on encrypted data and has published extensively on the topic.

In UC’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Wang and his students are investigating other ways hackers could exploit the devices and potentially steal financial or personal information stored online.

They presented some of their findings last year at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ annual conference on communications and network security.

The UC researchers examined a new passive attack on home speakers, called “voice command fingerprinting,” in which hackers can eavesdrop on data transferred between the smart speaker and the cloud server to learn what questions or commands the user gives the device.

Using machine-learning algorithms, they calculated that with this information alone hackers could correctly infer about one-third of voice commands by eavesdropping on the encrypted information the device sends to and receives from the cloud.

How do they do it?

UC graduate Sean Kennedy and his co-authors built 1,000 traces on an Amazon Echo for 100 common voice commands. The information sent to the cloud each time you ask Alexa for the weather are encrypted. But this data, called a network packet, from each voice command includes predictable traffic patterns like a digital fingerprint, Kennedy said.

“If someone is asking for the weather, that doesn’t reveal a lot,” Kennedy said. “But if you were able to string together other things someone asks a smart speaker, you could use that to do something else like open a garage door.”

Video link: https://www.youtube.com/embed/wfJpo2aGngo?rel=0

Leader in cybersecurity

Knowing what questions or commands people give can establish a pattern that someone could exploit, Kennedy said.

“You could imagine a scenario where you would know when someone was leaving the house,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy graduated with a master’s degree last year. Now he conducts research for Fortune 500 company Leidos at the Air Force Research Lab at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

UC researchers found that knowing the size of the encrypted packets alone could help them correctly infer what the user is asking 33% of the time. Wang said their latest study this year using deep learning increased the predictive accuracy to 81 percent. Pretty sneaky.

Sean Kennedy smiles for a picture in front of a brick wall.

UC graduate Sean Kennedy. Photo/Provided

Kennedy said one solution is to disguise these packets by artificially padding them with harmless data. It’s a solution that works well to fool the eavesdroppers, except it creates considerable lag in response time. And nobody wants that, he said.

With the increasing reliance on the internet to manage everything from what’s in your refrigerator to what time your alarm clock goes off, security is paramount, Wang said.

Perhaps tellingly, while Wang keeps six or seven smart speakers to study in his UC lab, he doesn’t take any home.

“The intentions are good: to provide more services to users to make our lives easier and more convenient,” he said. “But from a security and privacy perspective, since we have more devices that are connected, it introduces more challenges and more vulnerabilities.”

Featured image at top: UC student Charli Fuqua studies from home during the pandemic. Photo/Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative + Brand

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