Is Your Smart Speaker Spying On You?
Those personal assistants everyone seems to be getting for their home are convenient voice-activated tools for an increasing number of tasks. But when Alexa and Google Home are constantly recording and uploading your voice to the cloud, a third-party server, you could potentially be exposing yourself to hackers, government intrusion, and corporate spying. Are these legitimate concerns or paranoid conspiracy?
Amazon Echo and Alexa
By now, almost everyone is familiar with Amazon’s voice-command personal assistant, Alexa – arguably better than Siri, but not quite as intuitive as HAL 9000, though that’s probably for the best. Since the technology was introduced in 2014, a number of iterations from Amazon and Google have been created to put smart speakers in the homes of every consumer.
These speakers are able to play your favorite song, order pizza, activate other smart devices, and maintain your calendar. But some of the other conveniences they can handle involve personal data, like locating your phone, accessing bank account information, and calling your loved ones. All of this is accomplished by having a microphone ready to start recording at any given moment.
These days, new technological advents are a double-edged sword; they’re increasingly convenient, but also increasingly intrusive. That microphone recording your request to order take-out is also uploading it to a cloud server; a third party that is able to do what it wishes with that information.
Now, it would require a lot of data storage to record and save everything, all the time, so the device waits for a wake word to start listening. Your recording is then sent to the cloud to be translated by voice recognition software.
Amazon calls this the Alexa Voice Service, or AVS, which one can access and use to build your own voice assistant with a single-board computer like Raspberry Pi. That’s why the basic versions of the technology, like the Amazon Dot, that don’t include a Bluetooth speaker, can provide the technology so inexpensively; it’s basically just a microphone that sends your voice recordings to software in the cloud.
So, if the technology is that simple, doesn’t that leave it vulnerable to hackers? Yes, it does. In fact, there have been several different successful hacks that have forced Amazon to warn users of design flaws and vulnerabilities.
On Amazon’s pre-2017 technology, one programmer created a malware code that could be installed on Alexa-enabled devices to make it stream recorded conversations directly to his computer. This program was installed by physically removing the rubber bottom and soldering a connection between the device’s internal hardware, an SD card reader, and his laptop.
Though this particular connection would have been blatantly obvious to the person whose device was tapped, he said he would be able to create a 3D-printed plate that could be easily planted and go unnoticed with more time and development.
Amazon’s response? Don’t buy one of their devices from a third party. This might be the only advice needed for most consumers, but for those unfamiliar with the technology, they may be unwittingly spied on in public places where Amazon products are starting to be planted. Last year, the Wynne hotel in Las Vegas announced it would put Echoes in all of its rooms, while Amazon is adamantly targeting other hotel groups to do the same.
But that wasn’t the only instance of someone finding a security flaw in one of these speakers. Hackers have found a way to translate voice commands into high-frequency pitches able to be heard by Alexa but not by you – kind of like a dog whistle. Again, to use this hack you must be close to the speaker, though it’s much more reticent than having to install something.
While just about anything can be hacked by someone with enough know-how, there have been cases in which these devices have been recording everything as soon as they were turned on, straight from the factory. One tech blogger found his Google Home mini-speaker was recording and uploading his conversations without him saying the wake word. Google has since fixed this design oversight, but it goes to show just how easily it could “accidentally” happen.
Can Government Subpoena Your Voice Assistant?
The technology has only been available for a few years and already the police have tried to acquire a warrant to access recordings from one of these always-on devices. In a case in Arkansas, police sought access to an Amazon Echo in the home of a man convicted of murder.
The company refused to hand over the information and told police that there wouldn’t even be anything there unless the wake word was used to activate the device. Eventually, the defendant agreed to allow the police access to the Echo, from which they found no incriminating evidence, and the case was dropped.
But it wasn’t just the Amazon smart speaker that the police and prosecution hoped to find evidence in, it was also his smart water meter. Prosecutors pointed to a large amount of water used between 1-3 a.m., the time it was thought the defendant hosed down his porch to clean off blood from the victim. The defendant said the am/pm function wasn’t accurate and that he used that much water 12 hours earlier to fill the hot tub.
It’s this level of detail that our web of smart devices can unwittingly tell others about our activity. The use of a smart electric meter can even be used to see what television programs we’re watching by matching electricity fluctuations with the brightness of the screen. Essentially, each program creates a unique power signature, that can be matched to monitor your television habits.
Because these devices are recording data and uploading it to a third-party server, it can be made public or sold to advertisers who can calculate your habits with metadata. It’s unclear whether this type of intrusive data collection is actually being employed by many companies, but it’s highly likely. And as more and more of our appliances become part of the Internet of Things or IoT, every time you use them, data will be mined and analyzed in order to monitor your behavior.
The ACLU has proposed a set of rules and regulations that should be adhered to by law enforcement and other third parties for the protection of consumer privacy, though they haven’t been written into any legislation yet. It seems that unless we figure out a way to prevent the sharing of all this personal information from the use of smart utilities, we may be offering up access to every minute detail of our lives.
Removing Smart Meters
Black Knight 13,000-Year-Old Satellite Mystery Decoded?
Space debris or a 13,000-year-old satellite? A mysterious object, dubbed the Black Knight, orbits the Earth, puzzling scientists of the past and present. Some, like inventor and scientist Nicola Tesla, claim to have received radio signals from the orbiting figure. Astronaut Gordon Cooper was adamant that, in 1963, he saw it from his own spacecraft. The documented history of the existence of the Black Knight continues to mystify scientists.
Nicola Tesla and the Black Knight
Although Nicola Tesla’s inventions changed the way people live today, back in 1899 his peers viewed him as eccentric and somewhat of a mad scientist. When he built a laboratory and a 210-foot tower in Colorado Springs in order to experiment with electricity and record electromagnetic disturbances, his colleagues did not take him seriously. When he reported that he had received signals from extraterrestrials, the newspapers of the day mocked him.
Despite the ridicule of his peers, Tesla was excited about the signals he received, and came to fervently believe that he “had been the first to hear the greeting of one planet to another. A purpose was behind these electrical signals.” Researchers now believe the signals Tesla received likely came from the Black Knight.
Modern History of the Black Knight
Although there were some reports in the 1930s of astronomers around the world receiving strange radio signals, in 1954, the St. Louis Dispatch ran an article titled, “Artificial Satellites Are Circling Earth, Writer on ‘Saucers’ says.” The referenced writer was Donald E. Keyhoe who wrote about unidentified satellites orbiting the Earth. He claimed the government knew about them and was trying to discover their source.
Keyhoe later wrote a book, “Aliens in Space: The Real Story of Unidentified Flying Objects,” where he documented his knowledge of UFOs including what he knew about the Black Knight. Gaia’s Deep Space series discusses some of his work.
Scientists and astronomers reported seeing the satellite as it orbited the Earth. In 1953, a professor at the University of New Mexico saw a “blip of unknown origin.” In 1957, Dr. Luis Corralos, with the Communications Ministry in Venezuela, was taking pictures of the Russian satellite, Sputnik II, as it passed over Caracas. The Black Knight showed up in his photographs. This was the first known actual picture of the object.
In 1960, an American satellite showed the object following Sputnik 1, which was still orbiting the Earth. The UFO was in a polar orbit. At that time, neither the U.S. nor the Russians were capable of putting a satellite in that type of orbit. The object also appeared to be much larger and heavier than anything either country could launch.
In the 1960s, TIME magazine, as well as other news publications, reported on the Black Knight and referred to it as possibly having an extraterrestrial origin. Some North American Ham operators had detected signals coming from the object. Some even reported receiving coded messages. On September 3, 1960, the Black Knight showed up on radar for the first time. People on the ground viewing it with the naked eye could see it for about two weeks. The government reportedly established a committee to investigate the object, but no report was ever made public.
In 1963, Astronaut Gordon Cooper was orbiting the Earth when he said he saw a “glowing green light” ahead of his space capsule. At the same time, a tracking station in Australia, over which the spacecraft was orbiting at the time, reported seeing the object on radar. The evening news reported on Cooper’s sighting, and for the first time, the object was referred to as the Black Knight Satellite. The name stuck, but Cooper’s report did not.
NASA soon debunked Cooper’s UFO sighting, claiming there had been a malfunction in the space capsule which caused gases to emit what appeared glowing light. The result, said NASA, was that Cooper had a hallucination and did not see a UFO. Cooper later confirmed that he had definitely seen a UFO on his 1963 space orbit and that NASA had prohibited him from discussing it. Until his death in 2004, Cooper claimed that he did not have a hallucination in the spacecraft, but saw a UFO. He was very vocal during his lifetime about his belief in the existence of extraterrestrial life and his frustration that the U.S. government continued to cover up evidence of alien contacts.
In 1998, astronauts on the space shuttle Endeavor, on their way to the International Space Station (ISS), took photographs of the object. NASA again disagreed with the astronauts and claimed what they saw and photographed was not a UFO, but instead, just space debris, most likely a thermal blanket.
Black Knight Communications with Human Beings
Influential people and highly respected authors, movie producers, and directors and members of secret societies have claimed to receive communications from alien beings including signals from the Black Knight. Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the Star Trek television series and movies, is almost a household name. In 1973 to 1974 he was reportedly associated with a secret society called “The Council of Nine.” The Nine, in brief, were a group of prominent people who believed that the channeled messages received by their leaders were actually messages sent by extraterrestrials. Roddenberry allegedly based his Star Trek episodes on what he learned from the Nine, including the giveaway title he chose for a post Star Trek series called, “Deep Space Nine.” Many believed the source of the channeled messages was the Black Knight.
Author Philip K. Dick claimed to have communications with alien beings. The way he described his first encounter with the being in February 1974 is consistent with some of the captured coded messages from the Black Knight. Dick’s VALIS trilogy was, according to those who knew him or researched him, really a fictionalized autobiography and not science fiction. It pulled from his communications with an alien entity, which were likely from the Black Knight.
Is the Black Knight still with us?
Two separate people in different parts of the country who were each photographing the Blue Moon on July 31, 2015, captured what they believe is the Black Knight. The object was once again passing by the ISS. Is the Black Knight an ancient alien vessel? Could it be a satellite from somewhere in deep space that is trying to communicate with humans on earth? Or, is simply a piece of space debris left behind by spacecraft made by Earthlings? You decide.
Want more like this article?
Don’t miss Deep Space on Gaia for more on the long and hidden history of Earth’s secret space program.