Google Home, the company’s virtual assistant, can now tell the difference between you and five other people. The update will allow the cylindrical device to distinguish voices and formulate responses for each specific user. Personalized information such as music preference, commute times, schedules, and shopping data can instantly be accessed after voice-activating the assistant. The current iteration, however, is not fool-proof and exposes users to several security hazards.
A TV advert by Burger King, which sneakily used the phrase, “Okay, Google” (the response phrase) activated millions of people’s phones to read out the Wikipedia entry of their Whopper burger which had been edited to promote the brand. This created a fury of backlash for both Burger King and Google. Wikipedia has since blocked the page.
This was a genius media move – despite the fact that Google had no part in the Burger King campaign – but does highlight the many ways criminals can use the virtual system to gain personal information with just one click of a button — or rather, by just saying the right word. Like rubbing the lamp and unleashing the powerful genie within, this Google Home development can signal a new way consumers are exposing themselves to crime. Under the guise of “convenience,” virtual assistants can be sending your private information to third-party groups.
An answer to Amazon’s Echo
Google Home needs to recognize you. The first step to linking multiple accounts is opening the card in the app that says “multi-user is available” and then selecting “link your account.” Users will then teach Google Home how to recognize them. This is done by simply saying “Okay, Google” and “Hey, Google” two times each. The voice patterns are analyzed and stored within Google’s database. From there, every time a user says either phrase, the virtual assistant will compare the sound and find a match. The feature has been rolled out to Google Home users in the U.S. and expanded to the U.K. The ability to have multiple accounts for one assistant is a step up from Google Home’s leading competitor, Amazon’s Echo. Alexa, as it is called, can now recognize individual voices and give personalized responses.
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Google Home’s voice-distinction update does not prevent unauthorized users from activating the assistant. As long as the Home’s microphone is turned on, anyone can access it. This is what happened during the Burger King incident. The marketing stunt forced Google to block the Burger King commercial from playing around with its assistant, but the company has admitted that it isn’t ready to block other Home users from accessing the device. A spokeswoman for Google said, “It’s important to balance making sure the assistant on Google Home is still useful and able to answer a guest’s or friend’s question while also answering a few specific questions just for you.”
This voice-distinction feature will not be included for assistants that operate on Google’s Pixel phone or any other smartphone that runs on the latest Android software. Representatives from Google said that the technology is not necessary for phones because these devices are password-protected and typically used by only one person.
Rogue payments: A security wars story
Google isn’t the only one who could be endangering your bank account (among other things). In 2017, a security warning was released to owners of Amazon’s Echo after several rogue payments were credited to American families after Alexa automatically ordered doll houses being discussed on a TV show. A San Diego TV station received numerous complaints after an on-air report about a girl who ordered a dollhouse through Alexa caused the Echoes in viewer’s homes to do the same. Amazon’s Echo enables voice-command purchasing as a default. Thus, viewers found Alexa to have mistaken the show for their own command and made the purchase.
The incident prompted security experts to warn the public about the hazards of online gadget apps. “People need to find a compromise where they feel comfortable between achieving security and enjoying the convenience of these gadgets. It is certainly advisable to opt for having a verbal password or code to minimize the risk,” cautioned David Emm, a security expert at Kaspersky Labs.