Project Alias, the silencer for Amazon Echo and Google Home

A developer presents a kind of "condom" able to limit the freedom "of listening" of Google and Amazon assistants and protect privacy

"OK Google", "Hey, Alexa": just a few phrases are enough to alert the voice assistants in our living room and ask them questions. It must be said, however, that the various Amazon Echo or Google Home are constantly listening to intercept the commands given by users and facilitate many of the normal daily activities.

However, taking care of what is said, seems to become essential even if smart speakers are listening to us: curious incidents have verified cases of recordings started by the Google Assistant or Alexa without the user being aware of it. To overcome the fear of having private messages delivered unknowingly, researcher Bjørn Karmann has come up with Project Alias, a device that prevents Amazon Echo and Google Home from listening to conversations when they shouldn't, neutralizing any digital assistant if the user didn't actually need to use it.

How Project Alias, the silencer that protects your privacy, works

The operation of Project Alias relies on a few main hardware components: a Raspberry Pi A+ board, a ReSpeaker 2-Mics Pi HAT module with dual built-in microphones, and two 16mm Tiny Speakers. Thus composed, the new silencer is embedded in a 3D printed shell and installed on top of the Google or Amazon smart speaker, automatically generating white noise to deafen digital assistants to any kind of private conversation. An offline voice recognition algorithm disables white noise generation when it recognizes a custom trigger phrase: only from that moment, it will activate Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa normally, thus averting any unwanted risks.

Does Project Alias solve voice assistant privacy concerns?

As Karmann and Knudsen write on the project's webpage, "we started Project Alias to demonstrate how we can use the culture of manufacturers to redefine our relationship with smart home technologies, delegating more power from designers to end users of products."

In spite of this, concerns about the privacy of voice assistants find no respite.

Surveys - conducted by PricewaterhouseCooper in April 2018 and, more recently, by Accenture - have found that a lack of trust in AI assistant creators could become a barrier to consumer adoption. Among U.S. residents, 18% said they don't own a smart device with a voice assistant and, more than half, designate privacy concerns as the cause.

For their part, both Google and Amazon, are committed to acquiring a number of patents that protect privacy and do not use voice recordings for targeted advertising: the  tens of millions of smart speakers sold worldwide, as well as future estimates regarding voice purchases, which are expected to reach $40 billion by 2022 in the U.S. alone, foreshadow a smart speaker reality in which preserving privacy can only be a priority.