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On Stage

By Anil Dharker

30th December 2019

Do you have Alexa in your home to do you bidding? Or perhaps you are not an Amazon fan and have, instead, Apple’s Siri to schedule events and reminders, search the internet or find what movies are running in town.

If you do, here’s news for you from a New York Times report: Researchers in Japan and at the University of Michigan have found a way to hack into Siri, Alexa and Google Home simply by shining laser pointers at the devices’ microphones. They could then carry out a number of tasks connected to Siri & Co, opening a garage door for example. In one experiment they found they were able to control a device as far as 350 feet away by focusing lasers with a telephoto lens. Apparently, the microphones react to the light as if it were voice commands.

Sounds amusing, one more victory for human beings over the dreaded machine? Before we exult, let’s look at some of the consequences of hacking. And hackers are clever enough to get into most devices. The most dangerous, of course, is your mobile phone because the way we use it, it has far too much information in it which we cannot afford to lose. Just a few weeks ago, a TV actor received a call from an international number. The caller turned out to be a recorded message giving out a six-digit WhatsApp code. For reasons too complicated to explain, this led to his phone being hacked and all his contacts being sent obscene messages. Women on his phone lists, in fact, received pornographic visuals. And WhatsApp was supposed to be impenetrable!

The problem is that unless we are antediluvian, we will use devices, particularly the phone, because they are so very convenient. The young, of course, are completely hooked on Social Media through their mobiles (Is that young couple in the restaurant on a first date? They must be: they are both looking at their own phones). Lost, not in love but in the brave new world of technology, they are blind to its dangers.

Take the case of Katie Hill, the California Congresswoman, a rising star in America’s Democratic Party, who recently resigned her congressional seat. Nude photographs of her with a former campaign staffer were leaked (no one knows by who), and she found it impossible to continue. Then there’s Justin Trudeau, the very young, very personable Prime Minister of Canada, who almost lost the recent general election because a photograph taken when he was in his 20s went viral. The picture was of him dressed for an Arabian Nights- themed gala and he was in black face, sporting a turban.

Trudeau is a liberal, with a wonderful record. By no account is he a racist (he has a number of Sikhs in his cabinet). Yet youthful indiscretion almost cost him his job, and Canada a successful leader. Katie Hill was one of the 20 millennials who won seats in the Congress at the last US election; she pushed for action on climate change and student debt. These are important issues, yet she has had to pay the price for doing what a phone camera allows you to do, which is to take intimate photographs. She’s by no means alone: a 2015 US study found that 88% of adults had sexted at least once in their lifetimes! But those sexual messages, supposed to be private, can easily become weapons of blackmail: Time magazine reports a 2016 study which found that 1 in 25 Americans (that’s over 10 million people) had their photos either posted without their consent or had someone threaten to do so. We may forget our impulsive foolishness, our youthful peccadilloes, but ‘something’ out there never forgets.

We can’t do without our devices, but we shouldn’t trust them. There’s an App on your phone called true caller which identifies a caller not in your phone book. I found this really useful in dealing with unsolicited marketing calls. I used the App enthusiastically without thinking of how the App had got the identities of people through their numbers. Then one fine day, the App began to tell me the balance in my bank account. How on earth had the App infiltrated into my system? Simple: my bank sends SMSs about credits and debits, and the App had logged on to that without my permission!

The tech involved is probably quite simple. And that’s the frightening thing: AI is profiling you, evaluating your tastes in music and food and customising ads accordingly. I googled for information on a watch: I now get watch ads. Check out the latest model of a car, and henceforth you will get more information about automobiles than you will ever need. PI, or Privacy International, is fighting in the West for new legislation to deal with this invasion into our daily lives, but in India our laws probably haven’t even heard of AI. And legislation can be a two-edged sword; under the guise of protecting us, governments can bring in laws which limit access to free speech.

Either way we lose. AI wins. Hello Alexa. Be my friend.