Virtual assistants – friends or foe?

Matt Horan, security director of leading cyber-security company C3IA Solutions, with a ‘virtual assistant’

Virtual assistants such as Alexa, Siri and Google Home are ordering goods online automatically and without their owners’ knowledge after listening in to conversations.

With Christmas approaching and people discussing what presents to buy, cyber-security experts are warning families to be on their guard.

Matt Horan, security director of leading cyber-security company C3IA Solutions, said he had come across examples of the devices making unwanted purchases.

Designed to be voice-controlled ‘home helpers’, the internet-linked boxes utilise voice recognition technology, artificial intelligence and machine-learning software to assist around the home.

They can be ordered to play radio stations, make lists, give reminders, find information – and also buy goods.

However, as they are always ‘listening’ it is possible for them to interpret conversations as instructions to make purchases.

Matt Horan said: “I know of an instance where a conversation was being held regarding what model of tent to buy and where from, with particular emphasis on the model and type and cost.

“Their virtual assistant listened in, referenced the store’s on-line presence, searched for the details of the product to buy and as an added bonus dipped into the voice purchasing functions and ordered the tent – all this without the owner’s knowledge.

“Fortunately, an automated text had been sent from the person’s bank account advising of the purchase, which as you can imagine was somewhat of a shock.

“This is not an isolated incident; there has been a widely reported case in the US regarding a dolls house being ordered when a TV anchor stated ‘Alexa order me a dolls house’ – and multiple Alexas ordered dolls houses.

Matt Horan, security director of leading cyber-security company C3IA Solutions, is warning about the dangers of virtual assistants.

“In our own Houses of Parliament Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson was talking about Syria, only for his phone to hear its name, ‘Siri’, and answer him. It just demonstrates how these devices are always listening.

“If you do feel that life is so much better having your personal assistant at your beck and call there are some safeguards you can take.

“The most sensible is to disable the voice purchasing element of the device, or at least set up a passcode.

“At least this way you will have some say so over what purchases you make rather than letting a machine on the kitchen worktop make ill-informed decisions on your behalf.

“And of course they can be turned off when you are having detailed discussions about potential items you might want.

“With Christmas approaching I can foresee many people answering doors to delivery drivers with packages that the person knows nothing about – and which their ‘home helper’ has ordered for them.

“Last year these virtual assistants were enormously popular Christmas presents and this year they might be ordering the families’ presents themselves.”

C3IS Solutions is based in Poole, Dorset

Matt Horan, security director of leading cyber-security company C3IA Solution with a ‘virtual assistant’