Edit: It’s very unlikely because Amazon and Google pay for false positives, so they have a strong incentive to develop really good trigger word detection.
How do you know? And, how do you know they will not do this silently in the future?
Also worse detection does not mean more false positives. Usually, you can get the false positive rate very low by allowing more false negatives. In this way you have a choice, how you want to trade-off. Without this device, you are stuck with the choice that Amazon/Google make for you.
Because it's a literal hardware limitation. The device is built in a way that requires a wake word before any recording can possibly happen, thanks to it being built with 2 separate control boards. If they ended up maybe changing the wakeword to "the", then maybe they could "silently" listen to everything, but that would be caught pretty quick because the device would be "lit up" constantly (another _hardware_ thing), or someone would notice that it no longer responds to "Alexa" or "Google".
Seriously, a lot of people on HN need to do their damn homework about these devices before declaring them to be something they have been proven not to be. Packet sniffing and hardware inspection both instantly disprove all these conspiracy-theory nonsense claims that these devices are recording your every word.
And yes, I work on this stuff. Neither Google nor Amazon have the hardware limitations you suggest.
Echo devices only begin recording if they think they hear the wake word. Obviously this is less than straight-forward, hence the recordings that didn't follow the wake word (just examples of an Alexa device incorrectly thinking it heard it).
To suggest that a serial root console is a point of attack for an Echo device is bordering on insanity. You'd need a breakout board connected via the USB interface (not port, mind you) in order for this work-around to be effective. So yes, if a hacker had physical access to your device, time enough to solder on a breakout board, said third-party could record a variety of things.
But then, it's a whole hell of a lot easier to just install a mic in someones house and get the same effect, now wouldn't it?
That was not what he said. He argues that Amazon/Google could remotely use a similar exploit (without direct access to the hardware) to start recording without lighting up the LED.
Please, feel free to explain how Amazon and Google could exploit that vulnerability (that has since been patched)? More importantly, I'd love to hear how they are going to pull this off and hide it, given network traffic will be a dead give away?
If what your suggesting is actually what he meant, that's even more absurd than attackers trying to do the same.
A simple disclosure would have lent your comments more credibility.
Take note that Amazon Drop In  is a feature built around turning on the Echo mic remotely without a wake word. I don't think this feature could exist if there was a hardware limitation.
If your argument stems from "Google and Amazon would never do that," I do not trust any corporate entity to value my rights more than their ability to make a dollar.
People who think that there’s no way that Google and Amazon could be recording everything need to realize that this is also not true. Most of these “limitations” are software enforced, and that software is updated constantly.
I also don't necessarily assume mal-intent on the part of the companies, but that doesn't mean there won't _ever_ be that intent. Trusting that all of these assumptions hold over time is hard.
(It's true of cell phones too, of course, and I am engaged in constant activity to ensure the phone works for me, and not any of the many corporations that want to make it work for them. Turning off notifications, uninstalling certain apps after they've gone bad, ensuring permissions aren't too wide open, uninstalling default-installed apps and disabling others... it's a constant battle made worthwhile only by the fact that in the end, I really have mostly mastered my phone and it is working for me. I don't have one of these audio assistants because it is far less clear to me how to do that. Modulo being spied on by intelligence agencies, anyhow, although at this point I'm not sure how one could even escape that.)
This is a problem with forced updates in general (I'm also thinking of Windows, Chrome, Chrome extensions, etc. here) that security experts seem completely blind to.
That said, note that even if the software didn't update, it doesn't mean it would have to send bad packets when you're actually observing. It could randomly start doing that once in a while after a few months.
This is the big point. You are not only trusting that the company as it is today is doing the right thing, but that the company will continue to do the right thing for so long as the device is in your house - and that they will do the right thing in perpetuity with your data (including if/when they sell the company down the road).
As a side note, whataboutism adds nothing of value to this discussion about the Google Home and Amazon Echo.
Also, talking about your contradictory behavior with your smartphone isn't whataboutism, unless you want to avoid addressing your hypocrisy, because smart phones are susceptible to the same blanket fears you have with homes/alexa. To critique only the latter, and not the former (which you use daily), is not fair.
Per Google's own site: "Long press to trigger the Google Assistant."
This is a very technically naive interpretation of their hardware/software solution.
If the wake word were hard-coded into silicon then perhaps I would be charitable about your misunderstanding(s) - but of course it is not. The wake word is user-definable and can be changed to arbitrary sounds at any time.
Whatever hardware limitation(s) may exist are trivially worked around with software, which can be updated over the top of you at any time.
What is a conspiracy theory about today's hardware, I have no trouble imagining is a planned or at least considered future iteration of their "service".
Based on what? Marketing copy? Eyeballing iFixit teardowns?
> but that would be caught pretty quick because the device would be "lit up" constantly (another _hardware_ thing)
Totally not buying it, unless you can show me the traces and discrete components that force power through the LED when signal from the microphone is allowed to reach the uC. If it's done in software, I'm not trusting it.
If you're making an argument of "trust the vendor because economics", you have to recognize how weak it is.
I've spent some time reverse-engineering the echo microphone board, and while there is an interlock that prevents recording while the red mute button is lit (just the light under the button, not the ring), I didn't see anything that would prevent recording while the ring light was off.
Unless there is a separate out of band board with a relay I can hear or see (meaning, code alone can't enable something), then it really isn't a hardware limitation. The security controls and operations are in the code. The code can change or may already have silent monitoring capabilities. Nobody on HN could really answer whether or not this is the case. All we can do is speculate. If someone were required to put lawful monitoring code in place, they would not be allowed to discuss it here. The best anyone could do is decompile the code or get the source code for the firmware. Even then, there could be non-volital space that allows for updates.
Case in point, there have been malware packages that could enable your microphone and camera on the laptop without turning on the LED. This varied with camera model. Some power the LED when the camera has power. Microphones don't always activate an LED. There are a myriad of articles you can find providing examples of malware that can listen to cell phone microphones, laptop microphones without activating the LED.
Unless the mic and lights are somehow wired together (they aren't), then this is really just more software which can be trivially updated away.
The Google Home at least has a separate board with a microcontroller on it which could be used for keyword recognition, but I'm pretty sure they allow that to be updated for the sake of improving keyword recognition and there's no reason that an update couldn't disable the LEDs in the listen state as far as I can see.
And all of this is hinged on hoping you notice LEDs firing in the corner while you're having a conversation. Perhaps a more noticeable method should be used in cases like this. A forced "beep"/tone or something from an isolated circuit hardwired to the speakers.
From pure technical perspective, can the device not be programmed to be waked by wakewaord “the” with the light off?
It absolutely can be.
I'm under the impression that packet sniffing is useless with end-to-end encryption, but I could be wrong. I.e., you can tell that something is being sent, but you can't know what.
It does however not exclude other information, like sending keyword flags, or storing audio fragments to send along with other messages later on.
If they can't see all of the traffic, but just know where the traffic is going, then I don't think they did their homework.
I do understand that the wake word processing happens in a special kernel in a low power state, however....
The wake word is a trained kernel, it can be trained to listen for a huge set of things (as seen in the Pixel's passive song detection), so they would just train the kernel to detect a large targeted (marketing?) vocab.
about being "lit up" constantly? I'm not saying you are wrong, but I'd really like to see a citation that this is true. Is it true for both echo and home?
And while Packet Sniffing can disprove that it's listening and sending whole audio to the cloud, it can't disprove that it's listening for a huge set of "wake words" and toggling bits in other control messages to track users in more subtle ways.
Citation needed. Further, listening for a wake word and reacting to that is likely done completely in software: the fact it's even listening for a "wake word" means the hardware (microphone) is in fact always listening, it's just [presumably] not actually sending that audio to The Cloud (tm).
The unauthorized recorded data can be sent encoded with/into the authorized data.
The resulting backlash and legal ramifications would be so huge it just wouldn't be worth it. It wouldn't just take an insane and stupid CEO to do that, but also thousands of other tech/adops employees who'd have to be like, "yea this is a great idea."
1. Get people addicted to technology X.
2. Keep bugging people using technology X to surrender their privacy using classical dark patterns.
There is no need for whistleblowers. It's all done in the open. You have already willingly surrendered your communications, your 24/7 location, your knowledge searches, your financial transactions, your media interests and your genetic material. Why not surrender the privacy of your home as well? Yes/AskMeLater.
An Echo, or similar dross is a closed box controlled OTA, and networked. Even if someone had immense faith in company X, it would be unwise to ignore intelligence and law enforcement both foreign and domestic wanting access. You can’t root Alexa, it won’t even work without the cloud. It really does feel like training wheels for something entirely unpleasant, and all because people are so helpless in the face of dubious convenience and fashion.
Even worse: when always-on surveillance devices become popular enough that a judge could rule that the technology (in the abstract, not a specific product) is "in general public use" - crossing the bright-line rule created in Kyllo v United States - the police no longe4r need a warrant to use the technology see the "details of a private home that would previously have been unknowable without physical intrusion".
I'm not talking about the police being involved with Amazon or using the Echo. When a technology is "in general public use", the police can use their own always-on microphone to transmit previously-private speech to a 3rd party on the internet. Normalizing surveillance devices not harms the person using the device, it also reduces *everyone's 4th Amendment protection.
 Used throughout the ruling, but especially section II of Justice Stevens' dissent.
 The ruling, 2nd paragraph
I remember a Romanian politician and member of Parliament complaining about the local telecom providers displaying the GSM location data on the phones’ screens sometime back in 2002 and 2003, I remember of laughing at his ludicrous (that’s how I viewed it at the time) complaint, I mean, he was a stupid politician while I was a CS student, couldn’t he see how cool it was to see your neighborhood name on your Nokia 3110’s screen? Of course that the stupid politician was right and I and the fellow technophiles like myself were wrong.
Just because something is ultra high risk, stupid, illegal and abuses consumers isn't apparently enough of a reason for large corporates not to do it.
Edit: codename SOMALGET, subproject of MYSTIC. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MYSTIC_(surveillance_program)#...
Spy agencies spy. It's their job description.
The what now?
1) whistleblowing unlikely because any employee that steps out of line can and will be destroyed
2) any media fuss will blow over in a few days
3) promotions and bonuses require outsize risks
I think everyone has a point in their career when they realise large tech companies are unaccountable before the law. Mine was watching the MERS database running roughshod over American property ownership laws.
Everything can be explained away with "we discovered a bug that might cause your unit to record you constantly, but it's fixed now. Won't happen again, sorry!"
Are you sure? I don't seem to remember too much backlash from this, which was pretty similar:
Or this more recent story:
> However, Apple's practice of sharing Siri data with third parties [to provide and improve Siri, Dictation, and dictation functionality] is perfectly legal and outlined in Apple's iOS Software License Agreement, which Siri users are required to accept.
And of course the second article is an isolated case of human error. Nothing to do with violating privacy for profit.
Given the multiple precedents on the erosion of privacy path in the past 20 years, of which I quoted one example above, it's pretty obvious that they will turn "always on listening" in the future, using whatever dark patterns necessary to avoid a class action suit.
Because that would be pointless. The real problem right now is false triggering. If you’re actually worried about being spied on, why on earth would you have one of these in the first place?
From a privacy perspective, having user control of the wake word prevents Google and Amazon from adding future wake words that could be abused for other ways to track us. For example, Google might get the bright idea to track TV ads by listening for audio in the ads. Or tracking people in your house by making Android phones emmit non-audible chirps. These kind of "features" could be easily introduced at any point in the future by an update to privacy policies that nobody notices.
Considering that some TVs have this built-in, I'd be surprised if Google wasn't already doing the same. It's why my "smart" TV isn't allowed to connect to my wifi network.
(There was a previous HN article about it, I believe the brand was Samsung.)
At this rate, it's only a matter of time before evidence like that gets leaked/released, which would serve as a good probe on how much these devices really record.
> If the speech recognition is horrible I’m sure they’ll take it off.
This is interesting and cool, cause it sounds to me like they only detect for the keyword to "unlock" the Google home, so in theory they don't even need speech recognition. In most cases, they could just do with telling if a sound you make seems to match the sound you defined to be their name ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Unless they wanted to listen for a dog barking, then add "pet food buyer" to your profile data.
There are a lot of very easy use cases for monitoring background noise.
I trust that amongst thousands of people with different incentives at least one will raise their voice if something is not right. At least more so than I trust a corporation with, in this case, the the wrong incentives to self-regulate to my expectations.
Which is not to say that thats not a valid approach - but for it to work we need better tools to handle lots of git repos at once (for example, the ability to get notified about any new code on github that affects your project would be pretty cool, especially if its coming from people or organisations you haven't explicitly marked as trusted yet)
I would like to see someone try and sneak rogue commits into Linux. It would be quite the feat.
What? Who "injected" what and when?
As is tradition, just read "reflections on trusting trust":
If you can be confident that Project Alias does not have network access, then the worst possible scenario, even if the developers are literally Satan, is that Google Home would be doing exactly what it does without Project Alias attached.
Project Alias whispers to my Amazon Echo "Call Secret Project Alias Man in the Middle"
Project Alias requires no network connection to do nefarious things.
So yeah, this project turns the raspberry pi into an internet connected listening device.
If the false positives give them data that increases the value of your marketing profile by more than the cost of processing the interactions then they actively profit from false positives, and have no reason at all to stop them.
There's a feature in my Pixel to show what song is playing --like in the real world-- on the lock screen. A kind of always-on Shazam.
They don't mind paying for always on.
Arguing that the technology doesn't do this does not address the underlying root perception that Amazon and Google are not to be trusted.
Google built its entire business on harvesting _all_ data on the web and building an infrastructure to process it efficiently. Purchasing Nest made clear that to us that they now wish to harvest data from the home. If they were able, socially and politically, to harvest _all_ data from the home, their history indicates that they would do so with all possible speed.
Having a device you built yourself that learns locally and is under your control prevents Amazon and Google from changing their mind about what level of recording is acceptable without your informed opt-in consent at the time of the change. Both providers reserve the right to update their privacy policies without notification or consent, including granting themselves to increase data collection.
TLDR: This device is the physical expression of mistrust of Amazon and Google. Their greed for your metadata is well-documented, and their policies let them increase data collection in your home at any time without your consent. Such increases would be prevented by this device.
Or if you have reference firmware I can load, that would be awesome... What do you mean its closed firmware and controlled by Amazon/Google? You mean they can change it whenever they wish, and we have no say???
Long story short; you rented a spy device and you trust some random person online it isn't spying... Even though there are credible stories of these devices doing precisely that.
No, no, absolutely not, and hell no!