Date:20 March 2017
Appliances that eavesdrop are a real threat, even if the microwave probably isn’t among the culprits.
By Eric Limer
Is that Panasonic eavesdropping on you while it pops the popcorn? Trump spokesperson Kellyane Conway has been catching some flak today for saying microwaves can be used as spy cameras and that this fact is common knowledge. The quote came out as part of an interview with the Bergen Record, in part regarding President Trump’s evidence-free Twitter accusations that President Obama wiretapped the Trump campaign.
As Conway put it:
“There was an article that week that talked about how you can surveil people through their phones, through their — certainly through their television sets, any number of different ways. And microwaves that turn into cameras, et cetera. We know that is just a fact of modern life.”
Conway has since come out to say that her remarks refer to the high-tech world of surveillance in general and not any specific accusations. And yeah, the bit about the spy microwave is silly. But the ridiculousness of it distracts us from an otherwise true and useful reminder: We are all constantly surrounded by stuff that can spy on us.
Microwaves are not on the list (yet), but televisions, as Conway mentions, certainly are. As detailed in CIA documents recently released by Wikileaks, certain Samsung televisions were compromised by the CIA such that they could remain on while appearing off, eavesdropping all the while. Smart TVs may need to be hacked before they can listen to you, but other models have been known to spy on your watching habits right out of the box.
Webcams and other internet-connected cameras, such as security cams and high-tech baby monitors, are also notoriously insecure. So many internet cameras are exploitable, in fact, that a voyeuristic search engine has sprung up, allowing users to scroll through live video feed from cameras that still use their default security settings, which means their usernames and passwords are incredibly easy to guess. It’s a common flaw that is actually hardcoded into some cameras, rendering the problem unfixable, and making webcams a crucial weapon in a hacker’s arsenal.
Then there is sound. Any device that can respond to voice commands is, by its very nature, listening to you all the time. That includes phones with features like “OK Google” or “Hey Siri” enabled, as well as voice assistant gadgets like Amazon’s Echo and the Google Home. Even Samsung’s newest fridges have microphones, and previous models have been know to have security flaws.
The extent to which this sort of audio is saved or shared is unclear. Companies like Apple and Google routinely insist these gadgets only listen for trigger words and ignore everything else, but the microphone is definitely on regardless. An Amazon Echo is poised to play a role in a murder trial where investigators think it may retained pertinent recordings, though whether it even has those records remains to be seen. Even so, such a device certainly could just listen in all the time if it were compromised. It’s a process that is alarmingly easy and effective on phones.
The real craziness starts once you move beyond devices that don’t even have microphones. Researchers have developed malware that can turn a pair of headphones into a microphone sufficient to eavesdrop on a conversation. Lipreading software is only getting more and more impressive, and could feasibly decipher conversations from a silent video feed of a sufficiently high quality. Maybe that video is recorded from the camera built into your laptop computer, for instance. There’s a reason people like Mark Zuckerberg keep a piece of tape over theirs.
Conway fumbled by naming one of the few appliances that probably doesn’t have any form of spying capability—though, if someone decides that microwaves and toasters and dishwashers need to become “smart,” they might soon get it. The fact that all this wild surveillance is technically possible lends no credence to President Trump’s unproven claims about wiretapping, but it is a worthwhile reminder: You are surrounded by digital eyes and ears.
Image credit: Naomi Hébert
This article was originally written for and published by Popular Mechanics USA.