Here's how secret voice commands could hijack your smarthphone

A muffled voice buried in a YouTube video can take over your phone, researchers say

Kitten videos are harmless, right? Except when they take over your phone.

Researchers have found something new to worry about on the internet. It turns out that a muffled voice hidden in an innocuous YouTube video could issue commands to a nearby smartphone without you even knowing it.

The researchers describe the threat in a research paper to be presented next month at the USENIX Security Symposium in Austin, Texas. They also demonstrate it in this video.

Voice recognition has taken off quickly on phones, thanks to services like Google Now and Apple's Siri, but voice software can also make it easier to hack devices, warned Micah Sherr, a Georgetown University professor and one of the paper’s authors.

The team found that they could mangle voice commands so that humans can barely recognize the words but software still can. The result condenses the words into a demonic growl.

“Ok Google, Open XKCD.com,” the voice says, and a nearby phone opens that URL.

It's easy to imagine how a hacker could direct a phone to a website containing malware, or instruct the phone to take a photo.

It might not work every time, but it's a numbers game. If a million people watch a kitten video with a secret message embedded, 10,000 of them might have have their phone nearby. If 5,000 of those load a URL with malware on it,"you have 5,000 smartphones under an attacker’s control,” Sherr said in a statement.

If the hackers know the ins and outs of the voice recognition software itself, and know its internal workings. they can create voice commands that are even harder to decipher by humans.

The researchers have uploaded samples of a scrambled voice command. In our tests with an Android phone, the commands sometimes went undetected or were misheard. When an audio sample asked “What is my current location,” Google Now heard it as “procrastination.”

But other attempts worked fine. Another audio sample tells the phone to turn on airplane mode, which it did.

To defend against the threat, developers of voice recognition software could incorporate filters to differentiate between human and computer-generated sounds, the paper said.

Join the newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.
Rocket to Success - Your 10 Tips for Smarter ERP System Selection

Tags Phones

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Michael Kan

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Sarah Ieroianni

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

The print quality also does not disappoint, it’s clear, bold, doesn’t smudge and the text is perfectly sized.

Ratchada Dunn

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

The Huddle Board’s built in program; Sharp Touch Viewing software allows us to easily manipulate and edit our documents (jpegs and PDFs) all at the same time on the dashboard.

George Khoury

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

The biggest perks for me would be that it comes with easy to use and comprehensive programs that make the collaboration process a whole lot more intuitive and organic

David Coyle

Brother PocketJet PJ-773 A4 Portable Thermal Printer

I rate the printer as a 5 out of 5 stars as it has been able to fit seamlessly into my busy and mobile lifestyle.

Kurt Hegetschweiler

Brother PocketJet PJ-773 A4 Portable Thermal Printer

It’s perfect for mobile workers. Just take it out — it’s small enough to sit anywhere — turn it on, load a sheet of paper, and start printing.

Matthew Stivala

HP OfficeJet 250 Mobile Printer

The HP OfficeJet 250 Mobile Printer is a great device that fits perfectly into my fast paced and mobile lifestyle. My first impression of the printer itself was how incredibly compact and sleek the device was.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?