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February 26, 2020

Bracelet of Silence

Screen Shot 2020-02-25 at 7.03.24 AM

From Kashmir Hill's New York Times story:

Last year, Ben Zhao decided to buy an Alexa-enabled Echo speaker for his Chicago home.

Mr. Zhao just wanted a digital assistant to play music, but his wife, Heather Zheng, was not enthused. "She freaked out," he said.

Ms. Zheng characterized her reaction differently.

First she objected to having the device in their house, she said.

Then, when Mr. Zhao put the Echo in a work space they shared, she made her position perfectly clear: "I said, 'I don’t want that in the office. Please unplug it. I know the microphone is constantly on.'"

Mr. Zhao and Ms. Zheng are computer science professors at the University of Chicago, and they decided to channel their disagreement into something productive.

With the help of an assistant professor, Pedro Lopes, they designed a piece of digital armor: a "bracelet of silence" that will jam the Echo or any other microphones in the vicinity from listening in on the wearer's conversations.

The bracelet is like an anti-smartwatch, both in its cyberpunk aesthetic and in its purpose of defeating technology.

A large, somewhat ungainly white cuff with spiky transducers, the bracelet has 24 speakers that emit ultrasonic signals when the wearer turns it on.

The sound is imperceptible to most ears, with the possible exception of young people and dogs, but nearby microphones will detect the high-frequency sound instead of other noises.

"It’s so easy to record these days," Mr. Lopes said. "This is a useful defense. When you have something private to say, you can activate it in real time. When they play back the recording, the sound is going to be gone."

During a phone interview, Mr. Lopes turned on the bracelet, resulting in static-like white noise for the listener on the other end.

The "bracelet of silence" is not the first device invented by researchers to stuff up digital assistants' ears.

In 2018, two designers created Project Alias, an appendage that can be placed over a smart speaker to deafen it.

But Ms. Zheng argues that a jammer should be portable to protect people as they move through different environments, given that you don't always know where a microphone is lurking.

At this point, the bracelet is just a prototype.

The researchers say that they could manufacture it for as little as $20, and that a handful of investors have asked them about commercializing it.

"With the Internet of Things, the battle is lost," Mr. Zhao said, referring to a lack of control over data captured by smart devices, whether it gets into the hands of tech companies or hackers.

"The future is to have all these devices around you, but you will have to assume they are potentially compromised," he added. "Your circle of trust will have to be much smaller, sometimes down to your actual body."

February 26, 2020 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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