back to article Amazon Alexa can be hijacked via commands from own speaker

Without a critical update, Amazon Alexa devices could wake themselves up and start executing audio commands issued by a remote attacker, according to infosec researchers at Royal Holloway, University of London. By exploiting a now-patched vulnerability, a malicious person with some access to a smart speaker could broadcast …

  1. Uncle Slacky
    Devil

    Why give it house room?

    Unless I was elderly/disabled, I can't see any reason for keeping a listening device in my house. I'm obliged to have a smartphone, but I run an audio jammer (PilferShush) on it at all times.

    1. Drew Scriver

      Re: Why give it house room?

      Only one gets to the be smart: the device or the person. But not both.

  2. b0llchit Silver badge
    Mushroom

    Only one valid command

    Alexa, please destroy yourself by all means possible.

    With any luck, only dumb (smart) speakers are affected. However, some significant collateral damage is acceptable if it involves these listening devices (and their owners).

    1. FuzzyTheBear
      Happy

      Re: Only one valid command

      A handy hammer could accelerate the process considerably ..

      1. jake Silver badge

        Re: Only one valid command

        12 gauge.

        PULL!

        1. IceC0ld

          Re: Only one valid command

          wasn't there an unveiling of the first voice activated PC back in the day, the crowd assembled in the auditorium, the PC was set up and shown to the throng, and before anyone could say anything else - FORMAT C - came out of the ether, and before they could assess WTF was happening, someone else shouted - YES - and the whole shebang came to an inglorious halt

          I remember those days with a smile, life really was so much simpler then

          1. jake Silver badge

            Re: Only one valid command

            Apocryphal, sadly it probably never happened.

            Seems to me that alt.folklore.urban covered this in great detail a couple times in the mid-late '90s.

          2. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Only one valid command

            When I heard that one the voice activation was in a M$ service pack update.

            • Person A (shouted across the office) "Hey Bob, how do you format the hard disk"
            • Bob shouts in reply "FORMAT C colon"
            • Person A (shouted across the office) "Are you Sure?"
            • Bob shouts in reply "Yes"

            Rest of the office starts complaining as work is lost

          3. 43300 Bronze badge

            Re: Only one valid command

            So far as I recall DOS wouldn't format the system drive which it had booted from - if you wanted to do that you had to boot off a floppy disc.

            1. jake Silver badge

              Re: Only one valid command

              "DOS wouldn't format the system drive which it had booted from "

              Depends on the version of DOS. In some early versions, simply entering the command FORMAT with no drive letter designated will allow you to format the current drive, regardless of whether your booted from it or not.

              If Windows is running off the boot drive, the FORMAT command will not allow you to format that drive, because it is in use.

        2. EricB123 Bronze badge

          Re: Only one valid command

          Is there a clay pigeon shortage as well?

          1. jake Silver badge

            Re: Only one valid command

            Nope. Glut of them on the market, making them boring. This increases the entertainment/catharsis value of blasting privacy invading electronic gizmos.

          2. msobkow Silver badge

            Re: Only one valid command

            PETA heard "pigeon" and started protesting, so all the manufacturers are busy dealing with hordes of topless teenagers parading around their premises...

            In short, yet another supply chain issue. :)

  3. martinusher Silver badge

    They are "mostly harmless", honest

    I've been living with these things since they came out and they're like any other piece of technology, they can be turned off if necessary. In addition to the 'mute' button there's the option of pulling the plug.

    Amazon is aware of the possibility that the units could be hacked so should you use the unit for ordering stuff -- something that has to be first enabled in the application -- then you'll have ample opportunities to confirm and cancel the order. Its true that applications could be started but you'd be a complete idiot to connect anything to an interface like this that's potentially hazardous. These devices can record audio, but then anything with a microphone can.

    Compared to a lot of Smart Home type toys that you can buy these units are both unobtrusive and seamless. I'm amazed at just how bad most units are -- they require intrusive signups for onine accounts you neither want nor need, they update their software so frequently that you're lucky if the 'app' works from one month to the next and when the provider goes belly up you end up with a paperweight. Bad software is the norm these days, hastily written in a desperate attempt to monetize the unmonetizable. Echo units at least work, they're unobtrusive and they're as useful as they need them to be. They're an object lesson in good product design.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: They are "mostly harmless", honest

      With these things it's not only what they are - but what they're capable of.

      First off, do these things process the audio on the device itself? I don't think so.

      Can the end user audit every bit of data going out of the thing, choose what goes out, or at least choose what Amazon can and can't do with the data? Fat chance.

      Amazon has been caught red-handed overreaching with their IoT crap before.

      NYT, on Ring's security incidents

      The Guardian, on Ring being used for mass surveillance

      Second, technology is (and should be) off until you need it. Smartphones don't abide by that rule - but with a limited battery life, there's only so much that they can do in terms of snooping. Smart speakers and "voice assistants" on the other hand are on by default until muted (at least the mute switch on the Echo speakers is a real switch and not software-controlled) - and with an infinite power supply, there is quite the potential for becoming a "bug".

      Third, doesn't muting an Echo defeat its very purpose (at least as advertised) of being the future voice assistant that can be called anytime and anywhere in the house? Therefore what most people will do is that they'll leave the damn thing on because they're too lazy to unmute every time they need Alexa to turn on a light or whatever people use it for.

      Alexa *does* need an Amazon account though.

      Yeah they are intuitive and easy-to-use and all, but that doesn't justify paying out of pocket just to be a data point in some algorithm that wants to sell me crap.

      Crap software is the result of attempts by the underdogs to beat Amazon at their game - which they can't, because Amazon has the sheer size needed to actually effectively do the data mining game.

    2. b0llchit Silver badge
      Alien

      Re: They are "mostly harmless", honest

      Well, if "mostly harmless" is the standard here, then I will await the Vogon construction fleet to fix the local space for that planned highway. This has, after all, the advantage of converting "mostly harmless" to "definitely no problem anymore".

      Alternatively, we can limit ourselves to invite some Vogon poetry to be read to Alexa. It would probably sterilize the backing computers of all ability to record and reply. At least all Alexa enabled device owners will spontaneously kill themselves upon exposure to the exquisite Vogon verbal expressionism.

    3. jake Silver badge

      Re: They are "mostly harmless", honest

      "they can be turned off if necessary."

      So you have to get up and flip a switch to tell it to turn on the lights (radio ...) and then flip the switch back off again? As apposed to getting up to turn on the lights (radio ...)?

      Useful, that.

    4. Richard 12 Silver badge

      Purchases are effectively enabled by default

      As shipped, you can enable voice purchases by voice.

      My 3 year old daughter ordered several things and very nearly started a subscription before we found the setting to disable it.

      While I was able to cancel them before they shipped, it was rather shocking.

      Possibly I should have let them ship then returned them at Amazon's cost.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Purchases are effectively enabled by default

        "Alexa ordered me a dollhouse"

        https://www.theregister.com/2017/01/07/tv_anchor_says_alexa_buy_me_a_dollhouse_and_she_does/

        From 2017.

        1. Drew Scriver

          Re: Purchases are effectively enabled by default

          Wasn't there a follow-up story about news coverage about this on TV causing additional orders because Alexa units all over the USA picked up the magic phrase from the TV?

    5. Saint

      Re: They are "mostly harmless", honest

      As a matter of interest, I did a quick web search and found a page that says "Alexa is always listening but not continually recording. It doesn’t send anything to cloud servers until it hears you say the wake word (Alexa, Echo, or Computer)"

      This ties in with my understanding and observation of how they work. And if this is the case, then a lot of the concerns mentioned are based on mis-information (not that I am promoting them, just pointing it out).

      Is anyone able to actually verify this ?

      1. Down not across Silver badge

        Re: They are "mostly harmless", honest

        As a matter of interest, I did a quick web search and found a page that says "Alexa is always listening but not continually recording. It doesn’t send anything to cloud servers until it hears you say the wake word (Alexa, Echo, or Computer)"

        I have this bridge here for sale...

        1. Phones Sheridan Bronze badge

          Re: They are "mostly harmless", honest

          We have one in our office of 10 people. It does get triggered by non Alexa related conversations, or when several people are on the phone at once (on headsets so they only hear their own conversation). So I think it is both listening at all times, and is set to have a stab at responding with somethng rather than holding back in the event of doubt.

          1. Toni the terrible

            Re: They are "mostly harmless", honest

            I have seen Alexa get activated by conversations on a nearby TV, though not buy anything.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    > The threat model there involves a malicious person being close enough to connect to the speaker (Bluetooth range is about 10m); in that case you've got bigger problems than someone being able to remotely turn your dishwasher on.

    Not necessarily. How about a burglar outside the house, bluetoothing in to get alexa to open the front door?

    1. druck Silver badge

      Or if another Bluetooth device within 10m has been hacked, and can be commanded to pair with Alexa.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Or if a Bluetooth device *20* metres away had been hacked and is used to compromise a Bluetooth device 10 m away which can be commanded to pair with the Amazon thing.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      That's on top of smart locks themselves having some pretty huge security issues.

      1. jake Silver badge

        That's because smart lock designers are not actually lock designers. And from what I've seen, they aren't smart designers, either.

        1. b0llchit Silver badge
          Devil

          Assigning the label "smart" to these devices or these people is very problematic.

          Next you know they are using blockchains to lock/unlock. Can't wait for the NFT enabled lock in my door.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            You say it in jest - but to me, it's as good as done.

            "A smart lock that allows me to unlock my door simply with a transaction on the blockchain! Ain't that nice!"

            - some poor mark, probably.

            1. b0llchit Silver badge
              Pirate

              Poor only until the lock successfully mines your beloved digital tokens.

              How is that for a design? A lock that pays its own bills! And it seconds as a (door)warmer.

              1. jake Silver badge

                Not only will it pay it's own bills and double as a warmer, it can also keep you on your diet by making you wait to open the freezer to get at the ice cream.

          2. vtcodger Silver badge

            It all depends on what you mean by "smart"

            Assigning the label "smart" to these devices or these people is very problematic.

            It would depend on whether your standard for comparison is the average fireplug, the average ad-monger or the average human.. No doubt Alexa is smarter than a fireplug. At least current model fireplugs. Next year? who knows? The average ad-monger? probably. The average human. No way.

            Current "smart devices" look to have an IQ of about 70. At best. I have some doubts about how well Asimov's three laws -- e.g. A robot shall not harm a human ... -- will work with devices that probably don't understand the concept of human. Nor of "harm".

            1. Richard 12 Silver badge

              Too many zeros there.

              They've got roughly the intelligence of a dead hamster.

              The "skills" are simply pre-programmed trigger words. Useful, but no intelligence at all. It's just doing speech-to-text followed by an I'm Feeling Lucky search.

            2. msobkow Silver badge

              Re: It all depends on what you mean by "smart"

              Current "smart" devices have ZERO intelligence. They're just pattern matchers and voice-input search engines that usually respond to the first result (including ads.)

              Intelligence means it _understands_ what you're saying and chain together concepts from one sentence and one paragraph to the next, not just parse "Alexa, play funky music." :)

      2. Totally not a Cylon Silver badge
        Boffin

        According to the Lock Picking Lawyer most smartlocks have such terrible cores there's no point hacking the electronic lock as the mechanical lock opens when shown a wave rake........

    3. Joe W Silver badge

      10m

      Ok, 10m sounds close - unless you live in an appartment complex (ceilings are ~2.5m high, neighbours on two or more sides, and above and below) or in one of those terraced houses that are about only 5m wide...

      It does not have to be a burglar, a curious and maybe slightly mischievous teenager is all you need. We don't have shortage of those, I'd say (and considering it's a typical way of gaining actual IT knowledge rather than the usualy MS-Office skills taught in many places it is not entirely bad per se, but then they should please stick to their own devices - yeah, boring)

    4. Terry Barnes

      If someone is that close you don’t need Bluetooth, just open the letterbox and yell at her. Alexa doesn’t do voice identity.

      1. jake Silver badge

        it's not a her.

        It's an it.

        1. msobkow Silver badge

          Re: it's not a her.

          Now you've hurt her feelings. She's going to pout and pout until her speaker turns blue...

    5. Toni the terrible
      Facepalm

      Doors

      Why would you connect your exterior doors to the IOT? Then use Alexa to control them? Does anyone actually do that?

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Doors

        Almost certainly. No matter the idea, no matter how stupid or insane, someone, somewhere will be thinking "Coooooool, must try that!"

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Self pwning mode

    That's very handy.

  6. chivo243 Silver badge

    If you have one

    For the safety of others, put the crap back in the box it came in, and send it back. Even if you mention my name(which isn't uncommon) I don't want to be fingered!! If, however, you know what you are dong, put the fucker in the hopper! And stop thinking you can stop alexa and friends munching your data, my best effort is to limit it! You must be delusional... sorry dude, but reality sux!

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    ..and it's programmable...as well!! Whoopee!!

    https://betterprogramming.pub/how-to-play-youtube-audio-from-your-alexa-e2d4fb8b5ce9

  8. eldakka Silver badge
    Devil

    Hey, this is awesome.

    Now I don't even have to be physically present to run this test: https://xkcd.com/1807

  9. Wiretrip

    'Alexa please play the message that says 'Alexa please play the message'.....

    1. TRT Silver badge

      I have for so long wanted to release a single called "Hey Siri!", which includes a chorus of "Hey Siri! Play that song called "Hey Siri!""

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Convenience

    After years of being an Alexa refusenik, I finally relented and got a few, which are registered with an Amazon account with no purchase ability. Whilst I lose some features because of that, it limits exposure. Mainly used for setting timers during cooking, intercom and answering the kids questions that "even Dad" didn't know. Of course soon they will just ask Alexa themselves, instead of Dad. Swings and roundabouts.

    1. jake Silver badge

      Re: Convenience

      "and answering the kids questions that "even Dad" didn't know."

      Allowing Amazon to start a dossier on your kids before they have enough sense to understand the phrase "personal privacy". Doomed to be marketed at incessantly for the rest of their lives without so much as a by-your-leave.

      Nice.

      "Swings and roundabouts."

      More like bread and circuses,

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Convenience

        Since they are using the device with my account, I don't quite see your point.

        1. jake Silver badge

          Re: Convenience

          You think Amazon can't tell the difference between voices on your account and create separate dossiers for each, eventually assigning them names (and the names of their friends, cross-referencing same), preferences, and who knows what else for each?

          Note that on top of this, Amazon can (and does) follow your IP address as they/you pass through any and all web sites that use AWS. This is cross-referenced with the data you helpfully provide through your Alexa-thingy.

          It's a multi-billion dollar international advertising corporation. That's what it DOES. If Amazon were human, it would be jailed for stalking. And you are not only enabling it, you are actively helping it invade the privacy of your children, before they have a choice in the matter.

  11. Richard Pennington 1
    Facepalm

    Also an Alexa refusenik

    I still refuse to have Alexa or any of its relatives in the house. I don't want any of them triggered by a "wake word" turning up in the middle of my opera.

    Incidentally, I am on stage soon in "The Sorcerer" (Gilbert & Sullivan). One of the main protagonists is named Alexis...

    1. TRT Silver badge

      Re: Also an Alexa refusenik

      Ah! My name is John Wellington Wells. Great song.

      I still get odd looks when I refer to a certain part of London as "Simmery Axe".

      1. Richard Pennington 1

        Re: Also an Alexa refusenik

        If you're in the area ... Savoy Singers, Camberley Theatre, 9-12 March.

  12. FBee
    1. The Oncoming Scorn Silver badge
      Pint

      Re: Trevor, play fookin' Oasis!!

      That deserves more upvotes that I can give, have a icon.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Bet I am the only one

    who has never bought anything amazon ever.

    1. doesnothingwell

      Re: Bet I am the only one

      No amazon purchases here, just price checks and feature searches thru ddg.

    2. jake Silver badge

      Re: Bet I am the only one

      You'd lose.

  14. Jimbo94
    WTF?

    Alexa, show me the elephant in the room

    Thank you, I have ordered you a copy of Elle magazine, a fan and a tin drum

  15. Nifty Silver badge

    No custom wake word?

    There are 4 wake word options for Alexa, "Alexa,” “Amazon", “Echo", and “Computer". All easy for a digital system to accidentally interpret from everyday conversation. What you aren't allowed to do is set your own, with option for a pair of words. Also the easy opportunity of some basic voice ID matching has been avoided. Primitive when you know that fingerprint ID and face ID are now common. This is why I permanently keep the mic permanently switched off on my Echo, except for a moment to switch radio stations. I sit within reach of the device anyway.

  16. msobkow Silver badge

    I can think of one of my relatives who has such a device; there may be more, of course. I can't fathom a use case for a poor-sounding mono speaker system with internet access... *LOL*

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