Can You Trust Voice and Facial Recognition Systems?

amazon echo dotRe-read George Orwell’s “1984” and you’ll find that while he might have missed on the date things would appear, he was remarkably spot-on with the technologies he predicted. A TV that watched you and analyzed your activities and conversations? Yup, got that. Listening devices in other rooms? Got that. And now with the iPhone X we have mobile versions that travel with us, even when we’re in the car or visiting friends. What the heck?!

Actually, it’s not quite that dire, so you can take a deep breath. Your Amazon Echo, for example, uses local processing power to analyze the sound around it and listen for the “Alexa” prompt word. You can test this: disconnect it from your wifi and it’ll still know when you speak, it just won’t be able to analyze or fulfill your request.

Any of these devices can be tested the same way. Once you can get your hands on an iPhone X — or any of a wide variety of Android phones that already have facial recognition as a method of unlocking a phone, by the way – try putting it in airplane mode and then trying to unlock it by looking at the screen.

apple iphone x facial idIn a tech security note, Apple’s engineering team shares that the probability that a random person could look at your iPhone X and unlock it using Face ID is approximately 1 in 1,000,000 (versus 1 in 50,000 for Touch ID). Apple also reassures that “Face ID data doesn’t leave your device, and is never backed up to iCloud or anywhere else.”

What about those lovely voice activated devices, whether a Google Home, Amazon Alexa, the new voice interface on Sonos systems or the not-quite-yet-released Apple speaker system powered by Siri? WIRED reports that while the microphones are listening to you even when you’re not requesting things from Alexa or Google but that those “ambient” conversations aren’t stored or sent over a network.

If you’re the paranoid type, then whatever these vendors say, I’d suggest you eschew some of these latest and most modern of devices. Or cover the camera with a bit of tape (an easy solution). The microphone? Well, an Amazon Echo can be quite easily unplugged when you aren’t actively using it, and perhaps a microphone hooked up to the Internet isn’t a great bedroom appliance after all.

And about that phone. We’ll have to see. Good news, though: You can always opt for a password or PIN you tap in to unlock your smartphone, even the iPhone X.

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