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Is Voice Recognition Prone to Security Threats?

Popular virtual assistant Siri says, “Uncle”

It’s a strange hallmark of our time: Human beings seem less interested than ever in actual face-to-face communication, yet we couldn’t be more excited about the strides we’ve made towards having interactive conversations with our smartphones.

Epic sci-fi films like Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey captured humanity’s fascination with the idea of interacting with our own technological creations, but at least in the case of 2001, we also get a vision of what can go wrong when we put too much faith in our “smart” technology (Spoiler alert: A spaceship’s hyper-intelligent supercomputer decides to pull a murderous “Father knows best” routine on the ship’s crew; hilarity ensues).

Bearing this in mind, it’s important to know what voice recognition technology can, can’t, and shouldn’t do for us, and what security issues to be aware of before you sign your life over to the HAL 9000 of smartphones.

Rise of the machines

While some people think voice recognition technology arrived with Apple’s Siri feature for the iPhone 4S, it was Google’s Android operating system that first began utilizing voice-activated features a few years back. Never one to turn down an opportunity to re-package emerging ideas in a more elegant platform, Apple rolled out Siri as the preeminent virtual assistant who could schedule your meetings, learn your habits, and even give you various explanations for the meaning of life. (A favorite: “I can’t answer that now, but give me some time to write a very long play in which nothing happens.”)

Of course, it didn’t take long for the feature to display some HAL-like personality quirks. Siri famously displayed a distaste for info requests about birth control and abortion clinics, while simultaneously revealing a sex addict’s proclivity for high-end prostitution rings (any mention of the word “sex,” regardless of context, would be met with Siri’s eager recommendation for the nearest escort service). And of course, every once in a while, Siri might launch a profanity-laced rant at any 12-year-old kid who dared to ask it how many people there are in the world.

But at the end of the day, don’t let a few hilariously embarrassing headlines fool you. Both Apple and Google are well aware of the appeal this kind of interactive technology holds for consumers. Siri’s kinks will be worked out soon enough, and Google, the originator of voice-activated features, is reportedly developing a direct competitor to Siri that will provide Android users with an equally advanced voice recognition technology.

One way or another, and sooner rather than later, this technology will be in your hands. You know how it can help you, but before you get too excited, make sure you’re up to speed on the ways voice recognition technology can harm you.

A Siri-ous Threat

The arrival of the iPhone 4S and Siri was quickly followed by some painful examples of how “smart” technology could be shockingly blind to security threats. For starters, anyone could pick up a locked iPhone 4S, press the “home” button to launch Siri, and gain control of the phone through voice-activated commands. Researchers also found that more advanced attackers could obtain and load a self-signed Apple certificate to intercept, monitor and record calls via Siri.

If this all sounds a little paranoid to you, don’t forget there is a massive market out there for illicit access to emails, contacts, phone numbers and other private data. Some enterprising iPhone users recently learned this lesson the hard way, after news broke that a hack program could “jailbreak” the iPhone 4 and run a full version of Siri (which is officially only meant to operate on the iPhone 4S). It turned out the hack program was developed by a Chinese group known as CD-Dev Team, and once it was implanted on smartphones, it began transmitting all of users’ private data, including email, SMS, contacts, calendars and location info to servers located in China.

The easy moral here: Don’t jailbreak your smartphone. But, the more alarming reality is that mobile security threats no longer come from hackers and spammers alone, but from powerful nations competing with one another in what amounts to a global cyber-war. You may have noticed the U.S. government is at least slightly concerned about it, and you should be, too.

Fortunately, as this voice recognition technology grows more advanced, so does technology that can guard against the security threats that come along with it. All the companies involved in this emerging market will continue to expand and perfect the ways in which we interact with our own machines, and it will be exciting to see what happens next.

By Jamey Bainer