Project Alias Boosts Privacy and Gives Smart Speaker Users More Control

As we dive deeper into the Age of Artificial Intelligence (AI), privacy is increasingly front and center. The smart speaker is just one example of how a simple product dedicated to the task of reproducing sound has been transformed into a powerful internet-connected device that records conversations and collects all kinds of information.

Sound & Vision columnist Ken Pohlmann has expressed concerns about privacy time and time again and even outlined steps you can take to protect your privacy when using Amazon’s popular Echo smart speaker in the wake of a widely publicized story last May about how Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa recorded a private conversation and emailed it to a random person in the owner’s contacts list.

Creepy stories like this prompted developers in Denmark to create Alias, a “teachable ‘parasite’ designed to give users more control over their smart assistants, both when it comes to customization and privacy.” Alias comes in the form of a mushroom-like plastic top that attaches to the top of your smart speaker.

Bjørn Karmann and Tore Knudsen of Project Alias explain the genesis of Alias: “We looked at how cordyceps fungus and viruses can appropriate and control insects to fulfill their own agendas and were inspired to create our own parasite for smart home systems… [and] demonstrate how maker-culture can be used to redefine our relationship with smart-home technologies, by delegating more power from the designers to the end users of the products.

“Through a simple app the user can train Alias to react on a custom wake-word/sound, and once trained, Alias can take control over your home assistant by activating it for you. When you don't use it, Alias will make sure the assistant is paralyzed and unable to listen by interrupting its microphones.”

Alias has a built-in microphone and speakers that produce white noise to prevent the smart speaker to which it is connected from activating unless it hears a custom wake phrase created by the user. In others words, with Alias on board you need to know the magic word to use the speaker.

“Alias acts as a middle-man device that is designed to appropriate any voice activated device,” the developers explained. “Equipped with speakers and a microphone, Alias is able to communicate and manipulate the home assistant when placed on top of it. The speakers of Alias are used to interrupt the assistant [such as Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant] with a constant low noise/sound that feeds directly into the microphone of the assistant. First when Alias recognizes the user-created wake word, it stops the noise and quietly activates the assistant with a sound recording of the original wake-word. From here the assistant can be used normally...The app acts as a controller to reset, train, and turn on/off Alias.”

Noting that smart-home products tend to treat users as “passive consumers,” Karmann and Knudsen say they are interested in redefining how people interact with smart speakers and other devices. “Our interaction patterns are highly determined by the designers of these products, and with Alias we are interested in how this power relationship can be redefined, especially when it comes to privacy. The exciting future that ‘smart’ technologies can give us often comes with conditions that diminish our privacy. With Alias we want to challenge this condition and ask what kind of ‘smart’ we actually want in the future.”

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Tommy Lee's picture

The story, and their website, fail to answer two important questions-

Is it on sale yet?
How much?

Ken C. Pohlmann's picture
The Project Alias is not a product; it is a proof of concept that I hope will find financial backing. The developers do provide DIY instructions. I will discuss that in a blog tomorrow.