Tech UPTechnologyThey invent an anti-microphone armband

They invent an anti-microphone armband

There are microphones everywhere. It is not that suddenly we have become paranoid, but that we just have to look around us. All the people who are looking at their phone on the street or in the subway carry one with them. And then, at home, we have the one for our computer, the one for our wireless headphones, the one for the Smart TV and those that include smart speakers like Amazon Echo or Google Home.

A malicious hacker could effortlessly manipulate one of these devices to listen to us . But you don’t have to go that far. The technology companies themselves, such as Google, Facebook, Apple or Amazon, have proven to be constantly listening to us to provide us with offers appropriate to our tastes or interests.

Even a few months ago it was revealed that a Spanish application, La Liga, listened to its users to report cases of piracy of football matches in bars.

Is there any way to avoid it? How to protect yourself from all those microphones that listen to us without our noticing or being aware of it? We could turn off our cell phones and devices, but there are other formulas. Researchers at the University of Chicago, in the USA, have created a ‘bracelet of silence’, a device that is worn on the wrist and that would be able to block the use of nearby microphones .

From marital discussion to scientific project

It all started with a little marriage discussion. Ben Zhao and Heather Zheng are a couple and both work in the Computer Science department at the University of Chicao. When Ben bought an Amazon Echo with Alexa because he wanted an assistant to play music for his wife, he wasn’t enthusiastic about the idea.

Heather first objected to having the Amazon speaker at home and then asked her husband that he didn’t want it in the office they shared. He asked him to unplug it because he knew that “the microphone is constantly on.”

So something productive came out of that little disagreement. The two embarked with another assistant professor in the creation of a ‘piece of digital armor’ that would be able to make the Echo and other devices ‘turn a deaf ear’.

That’s how it works

How exactly does the invention work? The large bracelet is equipped with 24 speakers that can emit imperceptible ultrasonic signals . Nearby microphones would detect these signals as high frequencies with a kind of static noise that envelops and drowns out any speech or conversation , making them imperceptible.

“It’s very easy to record these days. This is a useful defense. When you have something private to say you can activate it in real time. When they reproduce the recording, the sound will have disappeared ”, promises to The New York Times Pedro Lopes, assistant professor at the University of Chicago and one of the researchers who worked on the project.

The design of the bracelet is not exactly refined. Rather, it can be said that its aesthetic is a bit steampunk .

I hear you…

Smart speakers and their microphones have become ubiquitous as of late. Most smart speakers carry microphones that are always on to perform their functions properly, but also allow the device to eavesdrop on the speaker’s conversations. Despite the fact that smart speakers were made with the aim of listening only when instructed to do so (by saying Alexa or similar), much evidence has shown that, in many cases, smart speakers have recorded unintentional conversations. What about our privacy then?

Unlike other devices introduced in the past (like the one from Project Alias ), this one is portable, so when worn as a bracelet, the blocker uses hand movements to increase its reach and eliminate audio blind spots , blocking all types of microphones (even those hidden from view). Important meetings, briefings or intimate conversations can take place being truly confidential thanks to this gadget.

For now, the cyberpunk-style bracelet remains a prototype, but according to researchers, it could be made for as little as $ 20. Now we will have to wait and see if investors are interested in marketing this new device.

Reduced confidence

Google, Amazon and Apple, the three companies behind the main smart assistants, have suffered some scandals. It’s an open secret that your devices are activated by mistake and record when they shouldn’t. But the machine is not the only one listening to you. Last year, the three companies admitted to hiring people to listen to certain user recordings, selected at random, without their consent. Fortunately this practice has been stopped or framed by a request for consent.

In an age where every microphone poses a new hacking risk, many think that the battle is lost and that, in the future, we will be surrounded by more such devices and have to assume that they could be hacked. Having a tool that guarantees your privacy from technology companies seems more like a vital imposition than a curious innovation. Would you wear a bracelet of silence?

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