What Happens When All These Talking Devices Get Hacked?


Microsoft had its fabulous Build Conference last week, where it promoted the future of Cortana, pushing it as some sort of companion for those of you locked up in the basement.

In the future you'll have a lot of semi-imaginary friends: Siri, Alexa, Google, Cortana. You can be sure others will soon appear...if anyone really needs more.

I should find these gimmicks annoying and you should expect some seething rant from me. But no. I find these voice-recognition and interactive modules quite useful (although I could just as easily do without them; I can look up the weather without asking). Mostly, I question their long-term reliability.

For example, I use the "OK Google" module on my Android devices all the time. I use it to drop in search terms, find addresses, and write short messages. These are not interactive chores. The interaction is something the module does on its own, but generally not in the form of a conversation. I do get into conversations with customer-service robots. "Do you mean yes? Or no?" "Say yes or press 1."

A lot of people are gaga over the Amazon Echo and talk about it incessantly. When asked about it, the conversation goes like this.

Me: What good is it?

Advocate:  You have no idea but it is fantastic.

Me: Like what?

Advocate: I can ask it the weather.

Me: You can't just look out the window?

Advocate: It plays songs from my playlist.

Me: It can't sound that good on those dinky speakers.

Advocate: It sounds better than you think. It's amazing. It also reads from Wikipedia. It can set a timer.

I could go on, but it's still just a gizmo. If it took dictation and did it well, I'd be impressed. But it doesn't.

One of the problems I've had with these devices is the environmental issues. Siri, Google, and Cortana cannot deal with serious street noise, for example. It's a joke to use these things while walking in Manhattan.

But let me get to the part that concerns me the most: People hacking into the things. This has not happened to any extreme, but it will when the creative hackers see the humor in it.

Many people suspect that the crazy "Tay" chatbot Microsoft unleashed on Twitter was hacked and ended up producing all sorts of vile tweets. Similarly, I can imagine the Amazon Echo being programmed to sing "Daisy" from 2001: A Space Odyssey, or the classic, "There's a Fungus Among Us," randomly.

It would be amusing if any of these voice bots returned a string of gross epithets when asked a question.

Microsoft denies Tay was hit with malware. But there is no alternative explanation. If it was an in-house hack, then it is possible that Cortana is the next target.

This is not the sort of thing any of these companies want to consider because the publicity would be terrible, especially if it entailed cussing at small children like a madman at a bus stop.

Hackers could also deliver purposely misleading answers to questions or wrong driving instructions. You can imagine. The possibilities are endless and I can guarantee that they will happen sooner than later.

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