Is Voice Recognition Prone to Security Threats?

Popular virtual assistants say, “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 years ago. Never one to turn down an opportunity to re-package emerging ideas in a more elegant platform, Apple rolled out Siri as one of the earliest virtual assistants that 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.”)

We've since seen Siri joined by Microsoft's Cortana, Amazon's Echo and Alexa, and Google's Google Assistant. So as the virtual assistant field crowds and they spread to more and more internet-connected devices, should we see them as a security threat?

Of course, it didn’t take long for Siri to display some HAL-like personality quirks. It 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. Debates about which virtual assistant is the funniest are now regular fixtures our national conversation

But at the end of the day, don’t let a few hilariously embarrassing headlines fool you. Tech manufacturers are well aware of the appeal this kind of interactive technology holds for consumers. One way or another, sooner rather than later, this technology will be in most of our hands. You know how it can help you, but it's worth educating yourself about virtual assistant and voice recognition security concerns before your devices are planning your life for you.

A Siri-ous Threat

Siri's initial arrival 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. Newer voice recognition platforms like Alexa and Google Assistant have brought their own security issues with them to market. 

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. And while these issues may have been passing curiosities when Siri first hit the market in 2011, the impending ubiquity of IoT devices will make any security flaws all the more significant. 

The alarming reality is that mobile security threats no longer come from hackers and spammers alone, but from powerful nations competing with one another and tech giants with unscrupulous data privacy procedures. You may have noticed world governments are at least slightly concerned about it, and you should be, too.

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

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