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Smart speakers ‘mistakenly’ record conversations up to 19 times each day

Privacy over ‘smart’ speaker?
Privacy over ‘smart’ speaker? (AP)

The study finds the digital assistants at times get summoned through phrases that may sound like the wake words. For instance, “Seriously” sounds like the wake word for Siri and often leads to Siri-powered speakers to start listening.

Virtual assistants such as Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant power millions of smart speakers and mobile devices around the world. While the digital assistants bring a variety of comfort to our lives, they can also be a big privacy nightmare. A new study corroborates the notion saying such virtual assistant-powered speakers get activated "mistakenly" up to 19 times each day.

It's worth noting that the digital assistants aren't programmed to always listen to conversations unless they are summoned through specific keywords, for instance "Ok Google" or "Hey Siri." The study, conducted by researchers at Northeastern University and Imperial College London, reveals these assistants at times get summoned through phrases that may sound like the summoning words. For instance, "Seriously" sounds like the wake word for Siri and often leads to Siri-powered speakers to start listening, the study noted.

Researchers also used a unique methodology to report their findings. They setup several smart speakers across brands - Google Home Mini, Apple HomePod, Amazon Echo Dot, and Cortana-based Harman Kardon Invoke. In a bid to simulate real-world scenarios, they played about 125 hours of audio from Netflix. The shows played included Narcos, The Big Bang Theory, Riverdale, Grey's Anatomy, and The Office among others.

ALSO READ: Here's how you can stop Amazon from storing and listening to your Alexa voice recordings

Researchers discovered that these smart speakers did wake but often for short interval of time. "The average rate of activations per device is between 1.5 and 19 times per day (24 hours) during our experiments. HomePod and Cortana devices activate the most, followed by Echo Dot series 2, Google Home Mini, and Echo Dot series 3," said the study.

Alexa gets mistakenly activating during the study
Alexa gets mistakenly activating during the study (moniotrlab)

Elaborating the wake word-like sounding words, researchers explained, "…with the Google Home Mini, these activations commonly occurred when the dialogue included words rhyming with "hey" (such as letter "A" or "They") followed by something that starts with hard "G", or that contains "ol" such as "cold and told". Examples include "A-P girl", "Okay, and what", "I can work", "What kind of", "Okay, but not", "I can spare", "I don't like the cold"."

"For Amazon devices, we found activations with words that contain "k" and sound similar to "Alexa," such as "exclamation", "kevin's car", "congresswoman". When using the "Echo" wake word, we saw activations from words containing a vowel plus "k" or "g" sounds. Examples include "pickle", "that cool", "back to", "a ghost". When using the "Computer" wake up word, we saw activations from words containing "co" or "go" followed by a nasal sound, such as "cotton", "got my GED", "cash transfers". Finally, when using the "Amazon" wake word, we saw activations from words containing combinations of "I'm" / "my" or "az". Examples include: "I'm saying", "my pants on", "I was on", "he wasn't"," they added.

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