When speech assistants listen even though they shouldn’t

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2020-07-03 11:57:55

by Julia Weiler, Donata Zuber, Ruhr-Universitaet-Bochum

This voice assistant does not only react to the trigger word “Amazon,” but is also activated by the phrase “and the zone.” Credit:  RUB, Marquard

Researchers from Ruhr-Universität Bochum (RUB) and the Bochum Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Cyber Security and Privacy have investigated which words inadvertently activate voice assistants. They compiled a list of English, German, and Chinese terms that were repeatedly misinterpreted by smart speakers as prompts. Whenever the systems wake up, they record a short sequence of what is being said and transmit the data to the manufacturer. The audio snippets are then transcribed and checked by employees of the respective corporation. Thus, fragments of very private conversations can end up in the companies’ systems.

Süddeutsche Zeitung and NDR reported on the results of the analysis on 30 June 2020. Examples yielded by the researchers’ analysis can be found at unacceptable-privacy.github.io.

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