Amazon Echo vulnerability allows hackers to eavesdrop with always-on microphone

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A security researcher has shown off the potential danger of internet connected speakers being used to listen in on private conversations by publishing details of how to hack earlier models of the Amazon Echo via a hardware-based vulnerability that cannot be fixed with a software patch.




The 2015 and 2016 models of the Amazon Echo can be exploited by using 18 debug connection pads, accessible by removing the rubber base from the device, according to MWR InfoSecurity researcher Mark Barnes. An external SD card breakout board was attached to the debug pads, allowing Barnes to boot from an SD card and rewrite the onboard firmware, making it remotely accessible.

The firmware changes take advantage of a way the Echo functions for verbal commands by monitoring a file created by the Echo to constantly listen out for a verbal command prefix such as "Alexa." Motherboard reports a script is then used to continuously write the raw microphone data to a file, which is subsequently streamed to an external device and potentially either listened to or recorded remotely.

With different instructions, Barnes suggests the persistent remote access to the Echo could be used to access other data, such as customer authentication tokens.

Notably, the attack requires physical access to the Echo in order to take place, making it a tougher hack to accomplish, and severely limiting its usability. Even so, the method leaves behind no obvious sign of an attack, once the extra hardware is removed and the base replaced, with normal functionality of the smart speaker said to be completely unaffected by the code changes.

Despite gaining access to the "always-on" microphone, the hack cannot get around the physical mute button on the device, which disables the microphone completely. This switch is a hardware mechanism that cannot be altered with software, though it is feasible that with extra work this button could be physically disabled by a determined attacker.

"Rooting an Amazon Echo was trivial, however it does require physical access which is a major limitation," writes Barnes. "However, product developers should not take it for granted that their customers won't expose their devices to uncontrolled environments such as hotel rooms."

An external SD card enclosure soldered to an Amazon Echo in Mark Barnes' testing
An external SD card enclosure soldered to an Amazon Echo in Mark Barnes' testing


The attack has been confirmed to work on the 2015 and 2016 editions of the Amazon Echo, but a change to the debug pad prevents external booting using the technique in the 2017 model. Considering it is estimated that more than 7 million Echo units were sold in 2015 and 2016, it is unlikely that Amazon will make any changes to already-sold Echo devices to fix the vulnerability.

It appears the compact Amazon Dot is not vulnerable to the same attack, and it is unclear if the Echo Show and the Echo Look will be susceptible to a similar technique. Both of these recently-launched devices introduce cameras to the device, which if successfully attacked, could provide hackers with a live video feed.

"Customer trust is very important to us," a statement from Amazon begins. "To help ensure the latest safeguards are in place, as a general rule, we recommend customers purchase Amazon devices from Amazon or a trusted retailer and that they keep their software up-to-date."

The hack is a reminder of the potential security risk in-home devices may pose to their owners, and the possibility of smart home gadgets being used for surveillance purposes. Previous Wikileaks publications, such as the "Vault 7" leaks, show the CIA is working on ways to break the security of devices in order to monitor the agency's targets without being discovered.

Apple has already taken steps to secure the HomePod, its own smart speaker due for release in December, revealing some of its security in response to a report about iRobot potentially collecting maps of customer homes generated by its cleaners.

"No information is sent to Apple servers until HomePod recognizes the key utterance 'Hey Siri,' and any information after that point is encrypted and sent via an anonymous Siri ID," Apple advised to a customer query. "For room sensing, all analysis is done locally on the device and is not shared with Apple."
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 31
    Well Surprise Surprise...
    dysamoriaMacPropscooter63lolliverbshank
  • Reply 2 of 31
    kevin keekevin kee Posts: 1,148member
    I always knew that the security is a major problem for Amazon Echo or Google Pod or any cloud based processing with "always listen" devices, but not until this news it really sinks in how dangerous it could be without anonymous ID token or end-to-end encryption like Apple. It's not so much about thief taking advantage of it, it's more about losing your privacy in your own home, even if you live by yourself.
    lollivermacky the mackylostkiwiwatto_cobra
  • Reply 3 of 31
    dysamoriadysamoria Posts: 2,350member
    This crap never ends, does it?
    baconstangcornchipMacProbigmikejSnively
  • Reply 4 of 31
    "Notably, the attack requires physical access to the Echo in order to take place" same with keyboard keyloggers which is far more intrusive than echo.
    Soli
  • Reply 5 of 31
    Can anyone comment on owncloud.org efficacy? I keep hoping Apple might offer something in the MacOS server app...
  • Reply 6 of 31
    SoliSoli Posts: 9,387member
    Well Surprise Surprise…
    You know we see the same potential threat to Apple devices every month or two, right? If you have physical access to a device it's very easily to exploit it.

    kevin kee said:
    I always knew that the security is a major problem for Amazon Echo or Google Pod or any cloud based processing with "always listen" devices, but not until this news it really sinks in how dangerous it could be without anonymous ID token or end-to-end encryption like Apple. It's not so much about thief taking advantage of it, it's more about losing your privacy in your own home, even if you live by yourself.
    1) So you're against "Hey Siri" and all the products that offer it?

    2) Don't be an idiot. A specific service listening for a wake word doesn't mean that your other devices with microphones can't be compromised. The same thing with devices with cameras, displays, network access, etc. This notion that if it's listening for a wake word that it also means it's recording what you're saying and then sending that off to China or wherever is ridiculous. You're more likely to have your PC hacked because the security is less controlled as the user can be duped into bypassing it at any time.

    dysamoria said:
    This crap never ends, does it?
    Of course not. There will always be exploits found, especially with older devices. We saw this just last week. It's a never-ending battle against potential exploits, but most are so unlikely to affect you that you're more likely to win the lottery.

    edited August 2017
  • Reply 7 of 31
    Overall, so what?  It's pretty unlikely anybody is going to be affected by this, especially considering all of the units are already in customer's hands.  If new units had the same vulnerability and could be intercepted in transit than maybe it would be an issue. But that isn't the case so this is interesting but not really noteworthy at this time.

    Now, if someone figures out a way to get this working on current units that's a different story, and hopefully HomePod won't have any issues like this.
    Solicornchip
  • Reply 8 of 31
    kevin keekevin kee Posts: 1,148member
    Soli said:
    Well Surprise Surprise…
    You know we see the same potential threat to Apple devices every month or two, right? If you have physical access to a device it's very easily to exploit it.

    kevin kee said:
    I always knew that the security is a major problem for Amazon Echo or Google Pod or any cloud based processing with "always listen" devices, but not until this news it really sinks in how dangerous it could be without anonymous ID token or end-to-end encryption like Apple. It's not so much about thief taking advantage of it, it's more about losing your privacy in your own home, even if you live by yourself.
    1) So you're against "Hey Siri" and all the products that offer it?

    2) Don't be an idiot. A specific service listening for a wake word doesn't mean that your other devices with microphones can't be compromised. The same thing with devices with cameras, displays, network access, etc. This notion that if it's listening for a wake word that it also means it's recording what you're saying and then sending that off to China or wherever is ridiculous. You're more likely to have your PC hacked because the security is less controlled as the user can be duped into bypassing it at any time.
    Actually I am not against Hey Siri, it's the one that activate even without the keyword that I find a problem with.
    MacPro
  • Reply 9 of 31
    SoliSoli Posts: 9,387member
    kevin kee said:
    Soli said:
    Well Surprise Surprise…
    You know we see the same potential threat to Apple devices every month or two, right? If you have physical access to a device it's very easily to exploit it.

    kevin kee said:
    I always knew that the security is a major problem for Amazon Echo or Google Pod or any cloud based processing with "always listen" devices, but not until this news it really sinks in how dangerous it could be without anonymous ID token or end-to-end encryption like Apple. It's not so much about thief taking advantage of it, it's more about losing your privacy in your own home, even if you live by yourself.
    1) So you're against "Hey Siri" and all the products that offer it?

    2) Don't be an idiot. A specific service listening for a wake word doesn't mean that your other devices with microphones can't be compromised. The same thing with devices with cameras, displays, network access, etc. This notion that if it's listening for a wake word that it also means it's recording what you're saying and then sending that off to China or wherever is ridiculous. You're more likely to have your PC hacked because the security is less controlled as the user can be duped into bypassing it at any time.
    Actually I am not against Hey Siri, it's the one that activate even without the keyword that I find a problem with.
    Which one is that?
  • Reply 10 of 31
    SpamSandwichSpamSandwich Posts: 31,512member
    Gee, who could've seen this coming?  /s
    baconstangpscooter63lolliver
  • Reply 11 of 31
    dreyfus2dreyfus2 Posts: 1,071member
    Anybody having the physical access required to implement this hack could position dozens of mics and cameras in your home far more easily and quickly. And all that to listen in on a sad person, which anybody talking to a speaker certainly is... Just put your own bug in a potted plant and leave it on the door step.
    Solicornchip
  • Reply 12 of 31
    foggyhillfoggyhill Posts: 4,767member
    Overall, so what?  It's pretty unlikely anybody is going to be affected by this, especially considering all of the units are already in customer's hands.  If new units had the same vulnerability and could be intercepted in transit than maybe it would be an issue. But that isn't the case so this is interesting but not really noteworthy at this time.

    Now, if someone figures out a way to get this working on current units that's a different story, and hopefully HomePod won't have any issues like this.
    How on earth do you know its not the case? Most of those IOT device won't ever get updates and we're all supposed to be all to be chillax about a bot army...

    Seriously, the IOT/cloud computing is going to be a security nightmare of untold proportions because most companies are lackadasical about security.
    baconstangpscooter63tmaylostkiwiwatto_cobra
  • Reply 13 of 31
    Not a fan of Echo, and chances are zero I'll be getting one anytime, but c'mon, this is a non-story. One, it needs physical access. Two, it can still be muted physically. 

    That's not a hack. Heck, it would be simpler for someone to install a bug in your house if they were that desperate. 
    Soligatorguyrob55maltzcityguide
  • Reply 14 of 31
    jd_in_sbjd_in_sb Posts: 1,496member
    Not a fan of Echo, and chances are zero I'll be getting one anytime, but c'mon, this is a non-story. One, it needs physical access. Two, it can still be muted physically. 

    That's not a hack. Heck, it would be simpler for someone to install a bug in your house if they were that desperate. 
    Non- story indeed. It also must be an older model 
  • Reply 15 of 31
    sirlance99sirlance99 Posts: 1,159member
    Gee, who could've seen this coming?  /s
    Gee, when an exploit for an Apple device that REQUIRES physical access comes out, people like you dismiss it completely, but the SAME thing on a competitor device and the world is ending. 


    smaffei
  • Reply 16 of 31
    sirlance99sirlance99 Posts: 1,159member
    Not a fan of Echo, and chances are zero I'll be getting one anytime, but c'mon, this is a non-story. One, it needs physical access. Two, it can still be muted physically. 

    That's not a hack. Heck, it would be simpler for someone to install a bug in your house if they were that desperate. 
    Finally, a sane person speaking some logical thinking. 
    smaffei
  • Reply 17 of 31
    I guess the easiest way for someone to exploit this would be to sell a used Echo, which in itself is probably not that uncommon. 
  • Reply 18 of 31
    Rayz2016Rayz2016 Posts: 4,788member
    I think I have a workaround folks…

    If you come home and find your Amazon Echo turned upside down with its baseplate removed and a 1950s-phone-exchange worth of wiring sticking out and plugged into a motherboard that wasn't there when you left this morning, then it is my suggestion that the device may have been hacked. It might be best to arrange your crack cocaine drop through some other medium. 

    When looking at all these scare-mongering demos, think about the practicalities. 

    edited August 2017 tokyojimugatorguymaltz
  • Reply 19 of 31
    joogabahjoogabah Posts: 118member
    Soli said:
    Well Surprise Surprise…
    You know we see the same potential threat to Apple devices every month or two, right? If you have physical access to a device it's very easily to exploit it.

    kevin kee said:
    I always knew that the security is a major problem for Amazon Echo or Google Pod or any cloud based processing with "always listen" devices, but not until this news it really sinks in how dangerous it could be without anonymous ID token or end-to-end encryption like Apple. It's not so much about thief taking advantage of it, it's more about losing your privacy in your own home, even if you live by yourself.
    1) So you're against "Hey Siri" and all the products that offer it?

    2) Don't be an idiot. A specific service listening for a wake word doesn't mean that your other devices with microphones can't be compromised. The same thing with devices with cameras, displays, network access, etc. This notion that if it's listening for a wake word that it also means it's recording what you're saying and then sending that off to China or wherever is ridiculous. You're more likely to have your PC hacked because the security is less controlled as the user can be duped into bypassing it at any time.

    dysamoria said:
    This crap never ends, does it?
    Of course not. There will always be exploits found, especially with older devices. We saw this just last week. It's a never-ending battle against potential exploits, but most are so unlikely to affect you that you're more likely to win the lottery.

    Why would it send data to China?  It's the US intelligence agencies that are spying on everyone. 
  • Reply 20 of 31
    Rayz2016 said:
    I think I have a workaround folks…

    If you come home and find your Amazon Echo turned upside down with its baseplate removed and a 1950s-phone-exchange worth of wiring sticking out and plugged into a motherboard that wasn't there when you left this morning, then it is my suggestion that the device may have been hacked. It might be best to arrange your crack cocaine drop through some other medium. 

    When looking at all these scare-mongering demos, think about the practicalities. 

    You didn't read the article did you?

    "Even so, the method leaves behind no obvious sign of an attack, once the extra hardware is removed and the base replaced, with normal functionality of the smart speaker said to be completely unaffected by the code changes."

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