Here's how secret voice commands could hijack your smarthphone

A muffled voice buried in a YouTube video can take over your phone, researchers say

Kitten videos are harmless, right? Except when they take over your phone.

Researchers have found something new to worry about on the internet. It turns out that a muffled voice hidden in an innocuous YouTube video could issue commands to a nearby smartphone without you even knowing it.

The researchers describe the threat in a research paper to be presented next month at the USENIX Security Symposium in Austin, Texas. They also demonstrate it in this video.

Voice recognition has taken off quickly on phones, thanks to services like Google Now and Apple's Siri, but voice software can also make it easier to hack devices, warned Micah Sherr, a Georgetown University professor and one of the paper’s authors.

The team found that they could mangle voice commands so that humans can barely recognize the words but software still can. The result condenses the words into a demonic growl.

“Ok Google, Open,” the voice says, and a nearby phone opens that URL.

It's easy to imagine how a hacker could direct a phone to a website containing malware, or instruct the phone to take a photo.

It might not work every time, but it's a numbers game. If a million people watch a kitten video with a secret message embedded, 10,000 of them might have have their phone nearby. If 5,000 of those load a URL with malware on it,"you have 5,000 smartphones under an attacker’s control,” Sherr said in a statement.

If the hackers know the ins and outs of the voice recognition software itself, and know its internal workings. they can create voice commands that are even harder to decipher by humans.

The researchers have uploaded samples of a scrambled voice command. In our tests with an Android phone, the commands sometimes went undetected or were misheard. When an audio sample asked “What is my current location,” Google Now heard it as “procrastination.”

But other attempts worked fine. Another audio sample tells the phone to turn on airplane mode, which it did.

To defend against the threat, developers of voice recognition software could incorporate filters to differentiate between human and computer-generated sounds, the paper said.

Join the CSO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags Phones

More about AppleGoogle

Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

Editor's Recommendations

Solution Centres

Stories by Michael Kan

Latest Videos

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Will your data protection strategy be enough when disaster strikes?

    Speakers: - Paul O’Connor, Engagement leader - Performance Audit Group, Victorian Auditor-General’s Office (VAGO) - Nigel Phair, Managing Director, Centre for Internet Safety - Joshua Stenhouse, Technical Evangelist, Zerto - Anthony Caruana, CSO MC & Moderator

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: The Human Factor - Your people are your biggest security weakness

    ​Speakers: David Lacey, Researcher and former CISO Royal Mail David Turner - Global Risk Management Expert Mark Guntrip - Group Manager, Email Protection, Proofpoint

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Current ransomware defences are failing – but machine learning can drive a more proactive solution

    Speakers • Ty Miller, Director, Threat Intelligence • Mark Gregory, Leader, Network Engineering Research Group, RMIT • Jeff Lanza, Retired FBI Agent (USA) • Andy Solterbeck, VP Asia Pacific, Cylance • David Braue, CSO MC/Moderator What to expect: ​Hear from industry experts on the local and global ransomware threat landscape. Explore a new approach to dealing with ransomware using machine-learning techniques and by thinking about the problem in a fundamentally different way. Apply techniques for gathering insight into ransomware behaviour and find out what elements must go into a truly effective ransomware defence. Get a first-hand look at how ransomware actually works in practice, and how machine-learning techniques can pick up on its activities long before your employees do.

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Get real about metadata to avoid a false sense of security

    Speakers: • Anthony Caruana – CSO MC and moderator • Ian Farquhar, Worldwide Virtual Security Team Lead, Gigamon • John Lindsay, Former CTO, iiNet • Skeeve Stevens, Futurist, Future Sumo • David Vaile - Vice chair of APF, Co-Convenor of the Cyberspace Law And Policy Community, UNSW Law Faculty This webinar covers: - A 101 on metadata - what it is and how to use it - Insight into a typical attack, what happens and what we would find when looking into the metadata - How to collect metadata, use this to detect attacks and get greater insight into how you can use this to protect your organisation - Learn how much raw data and metadata to retain and how long for - Get a reality check on how you're using your metadata and if this is enough to secure your organisation

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them Featuring: • John Baird, Director of Global Technology Production, Deutsche Bank • Samantha Macleod, GM Cyber Security, ME Bank • Sherrod DeGrippo, Director of Emerging Threats, Proofpoint (USA)

    Play Video

More videos

Blog Posts

Market Place