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Wrest control from a snooping smart speaker with this teachable ‘parasite’ – TechCrunch

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What do you get when you put one internet-connected device on top of another? A little more control than you otherwise would in the case of Alias the “teachable ‘parasite’” — an IoT project smart speaker topper made by two designers, Bjørn Karmann and Tore Knudsen.

The Raspberry Pi-powered, fungus-inspired blob’s mission is to whisper sweet nonsense into Amazon Alexa’s (or Google Home’s) always-on ear so it can’t accidentally snoop on your home.

Project Alias from Bjørn Karmann on Vimeo.

Alias will only stop feeding noise into its host’s speakers when it hears its own wake command — which can be whatever you like.

The middleman IoT device has its own local neural network, allowing its owner to christen it with a name (or sound) of their choosing via a training interface in a companion app.

The open-source TensorFlow library was used for building the name training component.

So instead of having to say “Alexa” or “Ok Google” to talk to a commercial smart speaker — and thus being stuck parroting a big tech brand name in your own home, not to mention being saddled with a device that’s always vulnerable to vocal pranks (and worse: accidental wiretapping) — you get to control what the wake word is, thereby taking back a modicum of control over a natively privacy-hostile technology.

This means you could rename Alexa “Bezosallseeingeye,” or refer to your Google Home as “Carelesswhispers.” Whatever floats your boat.

Once Alias hears its custom wake command it will stop feeding noise into the host speaker — enabling the underlying smart assistant to hear and respond to commands as normal.

“We looked at how cordyceps fungus and viruses can appropriate and control insects to fulfill their own agendas and were inspired to create our own parasite for smart home systems,” explain Karmann and Knudsen in a write-up of the project here. “Therefore we started Project Alias to demonstrate how maker-culture can be used to redefine our relationship with smart home technologies, by delegating more power from the designers to the end users of the products.”

And if you’re wondering how you’ll know when the microphone is safety being blocked again after you’ve been chatting to the voice assistant, Karmann told us: “Because of the new continuous conversion features in Alexa and Google, there is a built in time frame of 30 seconds before Alias goes back to blocking the microphones again. Inside the shell a bright LED lights up as soon as the assistant has been activated, as well on the app to give immediate feedback.”

While an IoT privacy shield is the immediate use-case for Alias, Karmann also envisages users being able to use the device to create other vocal shortcuts — and establish a more collegiate and cosy relationship with the underlying tech.

“Since Alias is essentially a man-in-the-middle device, it could say more that just the wake word. We could imagine users writing their own responses and shortcuts. For example: Say the word “Weather” and Alias could trigger the assistant and ask it about the today’s weather forecast,” he suggests.

Alias offers a glimpse of a richly creative and personalized future for IoT, as the means of producing custom but still powerful connected technology products becomes more affordable and accessible.

And so also perhaps a partial answer to IoT’s privacy problem, for those who don’t want to abstain entirely. (Albeit, on the security front, more custom and controllable IoT does increase the hackable surface area — so that’s another element to bear in mind; more custom controls for greater privacy does not necessarily mesh with robust device security.)

“We both would never had bought a smart speaker in the first place. But since Bjørn had received a developer device, he was curious and saw it as an opportunity for research, eventually leading to frustration and a bright idea. Today I am happily using a completely renamed Google Home with the name “Marvin”,” adds Karmann.

If you’re hankering after your own Alexa-disrupting blob-topper, the pair have uploaded a build guide to Instructables and put the source code on GitHub. So fill yer boots.

Project Alias is of course not a solution to the underlying tracking problem of smart assistants — which harvest insights gleaned from voice commands to further flesh out interest profiles of users, including for ad targeting purposes.

That would require either proper privacy regulation or, er, a new kind of software virus that infiltrates the host system and prevents it from accessing user data. And — unlike this creative physical IoT add-on — that kind of tech would not be at all legal.

This report was updated with comment from Alias’ co-designer

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Amazon’s Echo Show 15 smart display becomes a portable Fire TV

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Enlarge / Fire TV on the Amazon Echo Show 15.

Amazon

Amazon’s Echo Show 15 versatile smart display now has a more mainstream purpose: streaming TV and movies. Amazon pushed a free software update today that grants the Echo Show 15 with Fire TV capabilities, and newly purchased devices will be able to stream content from the likes of Disney+, Peacock, and other Fire TV apps.

Amazon initially announced plans to Fire TV-ify the Echo Show 15 in September. At the time, it said 70 percent of people who used the 15.6-inch smart display in the prior month did so to watch videos.

Upon release, the Echo Show 15 supported Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, and Hulu; (though you could only summon them by asking Alexa). But today’s news puts those apps under one umbrella while adding additional streaming services, including HBO Max and Discovery+ (soon to merge into Max?) and Paramount+.

The update also lets you use Alexa to play content across streaming services by voice, and Amazon is even pushing a bundle of the Echo Show 15 and its Alexa Voice Remote (3rd Gen) to coincide with the new feature.

Amazon hasn't said whether or not it will bring Fire TV to its other, smaller Echo Show devices.
Enlarge / Amazon hasn’t said whether or not it will bring Fire TV to its other, smaller Echo Show devices.

Scharon Harding

The introduction of Fire TV brings a newfound purpose to the Echo Show 15. The device could already do more than any of Amazon’s other Echo products, yet, as a smart display, it’s faced obstacles as an emerging technology since many people struggle to find a purpose for it.

As we said in our Echo Show 15 review, one of the displays’ best features is that its large size beats its competition and boosts experiences like photo viewing. Naturally, watching TV and movies is another place where having those extra inches could help.

While I struggled to navigate the Echo Show 15’s interface to understand all the things I could do with it—despite the product constantly suggesting new features to try—the value of watching TV no needs no explanation here. The Echo Show 15 Fire TV isn’t going to replace the big-screen TV in the living room, but it can now serve as a portable smart TV that you can place or mount in any room much more easily.

The Echo Show 15’s new feature comes as Amazon’s Alexa struggles to find financial success and is reportedly said to lose $10 billion this year. On the other hand, Amazon reportedly sold more than 150 million Fire TV devices as of January and can use the service to make money in good old-fashioned ways, like through ads and pushing other subscription services.

The Echo Show 15 doubling as a Fire TV is another example of how companies are still exploring how to sell smart displays to consumers. Earlier this year, Meta gave its connected video conferencing display an additional, more common functionality when it updated the Portal to serve as a wireless monitor.

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Apple adds end-to-end encryption to iCloud device backups and more

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End-to-end encryption is coming to most of iCloud with a new optional feature called Advanced Data Protection, according to Apple’s announcement on Wednesday.

Previously, 14 data categories within iCloud were protected. This new feature brings that count to 23, including photos, notes, voice memos, reminders, Safari bookmarks, and iCloud backups of the contents of your devices. Not everything is encrypted in this way, though. Critically, calendar and mail are untouched here. Apple says they are not covered “because of the need to interoperate with the global email, contacts, and calendar systems.”

US-based participants in the Apple Beta Software Program can start using Advanced Data Protection today, and it will roll out to more Americans by year’s end. If you’re outside the US, you’ll have to wait until sometime in 2023, Apple says.

Advanced Data Protection is the big news for most people, but Apple announced two other features related to privacy and security on iCloud. First, iCloud users may now use hardware security keys like YubiKeys. Both NFC keys and plug-in keys are supported.

Second, there’s iMessage Contact Key Verification, which can alert “users who face extraordinary digital threats,” like journalists, if state-sponsored actors are hijacking or spying on their conversations, in some cases.

In tandem with today’s announcements, Apple confirmed something most of us already figured: It is no longer working on a controversial system that was intended to identify child sexual-abuse material on users’ iPhones—the company changed course after a public privacy and security backlash.

Listing image by Samuel Axon

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San Francisco decides killer police robots aren’t such a great idea

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Enlarge / The social media flyer for the “no killer robots” rally.

The robot police dystopia will have to wait. Last week the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to authorize the San Francisco Police Department to add lethal robots to its arsenal. The plan wasn’t yet “robots with guns” (though some police bomb disposal robots fire shotgun shells already, and some are also used by the military as gun platforms) but to arm the bomb disposal robots with bombs, allowing them to drive up to suspects and detonate. Once the public got wind of this, the protests started, and after an 8–3 vote authorizing the robots last week, now the SF Board of Supervisors has unanimously voted to (at least temporarily) ban lethal robots.

Shortly after the initial news broke, a “No Killer Robots” campaign started with the involvement of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the ACLU, and other civil rights groups. Forty-four community groups signed a letter in opposition to the policy, saying, “There is no basis to believe that robots toting explosives might be an exception to police overuse of deadly force. Using robots that are designed to disarm bombs to instead deliver them is a perfect example of this pattern of escalation, and of the militarization of the police force that concerns so many across the city.”

On December 5, over 100 protesters showed up to SF City Hall, carrying signs with phrases like, “We’ve all seen that movie… No Killer Robots.”

Among the protesters was Dean Preston, one of the SF supervisors who originally voted against the policy. Preston claims that the SFPD may have violated the law by not publicly publishing the robot policy 30 days before it goes up for a vote. In a letter to San Francisco Mayor London Breed and Police Chief William Scott, Preston cites California Gov Code 7071(b), which requires departments seeking approval for military equipment to “make those documents available on the law enforcement agency’s Internet website at least 30 days prior to any public hearing concerning the military equipment at issue.” Preston later adds: “I want to emphasize that this is not just a technicality. A primary purpose of [this law], written by our City Attorney when he was in the Assembly, is to ensure transparency and give the public an opportunity to weigh in on these policies.”

As the San Francisco Chronicle reports, the use of lethal robots has been banned “for now.” The issue will go back to committee for further discussion, and it could vote on the policy again in the future.

In a press release after the reversal, Preston says: “The people of San Francisco have spoken loud and clear: There is no place for killer police robots in our city.”

The statement ends with: “I am calling on my colleagues to take heed of the powerful backlash and make sure this harmful policy is never approved—not today, not tomorrow, not ever.”

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