One of the first stories that comes to mind when we discuss the lack of privacy of virtual assistants It took place in Portland (USA) last year. A man received a call in which a co-worker warned him that, through Alexa, he had received audios of the private conversation he was having with his partner at the time. Apparently, the device recorded the dialogue and sent it to the virtual assistant of the partner, an action that Amazon attributed to a series of coincidences for which the device made this determination. But the secrecy that characterizes the technology incites us to be malpensed, even as a precaution.
We are introducing in our homes devices designed by large multinationals who could be listening to everything we say. Despite the benefits they can bring to our lives, it seems wise to act cautiously to protect our privacy. Can we cover Alexa's ears when we do not need it?
The so-called Alias project has created a solution that involves an approximation to this scenario. It is an open source hardware device, composed of a matrix of microphones and loudspeakers, a Raspberry Pi and a sort of beret printed in 3D, which, placed on a virtual assistant, emits a white noise that prevents it from listening to what is happening around it. With a keyword, Alias frees the wizard and allows you to use it without restrictions until it is activated again. The device is not connected to the internet, so the conversations that you have at home, stay at home.
The idea is born from the mind of two Danish designers and can be used with Google Home or Amazon Echo. Their inspiration is fungi from the rainforest that infect certain insects, take control of their brain and guide them to areas where they can grow better. The insect dies, but the fungus releases its spores in a more fertile soil. "We wanted to take that as an analogy and show how DIY and open source can be used to create 'viruses' for large technology companies." he explained to Fast Company Tore Knudsen, one of the creators of Alias.
Through local machine learning – since the device is not connected to the cloud – users can train Alias to respond to the name they want to give it. Each time they say the keyword, the device unlocks the assistant and pronounces its activation word ("Alexa", "Ok Google" …) so that it can be used.
The free software project is not being marketed and, as its creators explain in the GitHub development platform, it is not yet a finished product. Not like other initiatives in which they have worked previously, such as a lamp that measures the activity of trackers in a user's local network to guarantee your privacy or a device to train everyday objects to exercise certain routines by means of artificial intelligence.