The most visible face of these developments are the network connected home “Assistants”, such as Alexa, Siri, Google Home, and so on. Aside from the extremely questionable rationale (Why do I need a voice interface to my refrigerator? Why do I need my refrigerator to connect to the entire freaking Internet?) there are famous cases that illustrate that these beasts are deeply invasive.
Last fall, Hyunji Chung and colleages at US National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) wrote about the trustworthiness of these systems.
“[S]uch interactions should be solely between you and the device assisting you. But are they? How do you know for sure?” (p. 100)
These are complicated, network connected systems which are not trivial to understand and evaluate. But they are in our homes, so everyone needs to know just how far to trust them.
The researchers sketch the “ecosystem” of network connected components and services. The very fact that they are complex enough to warrant the term, “ecosystem”, is the fundamental problem.
“[W]e performed cloud-native artifact analysis, packet analysis, voice-command tests, application analysis, and firmware analysis” (p. 101)
Uh, oh. Does anyone besides me see a problem with deploying such a system unsupervised in private homes?
The threat envelope is huge. The basic logic of the assitant is implemented mainly in “the cloud”, with components on local devices that communicate with the cloud. Many assistants have third party apps as well. They report that the Alexa “Skill Store” has 10,000 such voice-actuated apps.
The point of the analysis is, of course, risk assessment. They identify many, many risks—basically, everything that might threaten the Internet.
- Compromises devices
- Malicious voice commands
Wireless communication is, of course, a weakness. The researchers report the appalling fact that not all the communications are encrypted. Even when encrypted, traffic sniffing can still reveal considerable information about the devices and users.
Obviously, devices may be hacked. In this case, there is no expert IT department to defend the network, detect intrusions, or patch bugs. One has to think that home devices are relatively defenseless, and certain to be cracked over time.
One reason I don’t like voice commands is that they are hard to secure. Even the best voice recognition systems are vulnerable to mistakes, and low-cost, consumer-maintained systems probably aren’t top of the line. (And who wants your Alexa to reject commands because it isn’t certain that you are really you.)
And, of course, every link is a potential channel for someone to listen in on your life.
This article makes clear that these systems have a lot of potential issues, even if they are configured correctly and work as designed. Unfortunately, personal and home devices are not likely to be carefully configured or monitored. I have a PhD in computer science and have done my share of sysadmin, and I have not the remotest clue how to set up and keep one of these systems.
These researchers carefully don’t answer the question, “can I trust you?” But it is very clear that the answer is “no”.
I’m afraid that people are taking these devices on faith. They are sold as appliances, and the look like appliances, so they must be as safe as a consumer appliance, right?
This is a really great article, and everyone should read it before turning on any cloud service, let alone installing an “assistant” in their home.
And if you don’t understand what this article says, then you definitely shouldn’t install one of these assistants in your home.
- Hyunji Chung, Michaela Iorga, Jeffrey Voas, and Sangjin Lee, “Alexa, Can I Trust You?”. Computer, 50 (9):100-104, 2017. https://www.computer.org/csdl/mags/co/2017/09/mco2017090100-abs.html