What is Voice Recognition?“Voice recognition is the process of taking the spoken word as an input to a computer program,” defines voice recognition Jim Baumann from the University of Washington. As explained by Gary Pearson, Co-Founder of Verbyx, voice recognition relies upon two components to generate the accuracy levels that are reported: a language model and acoustic model. Together, these two models provide an internal representation of how people using a specific language from a specific country or region speak.
Because voice recognition software relies on generalizations and rough approximations, individual variations in accent, tone of voice, pitch, and so on affect its accuracy and reliability. Some users are likely to have close to zero issues with certain voice-controlled devices, while others will fall on the opposite end of the accuracy spectrum.
Disadvantages of Voice ControlAs Carol Finch writes, “Programs cannot understand the context of language the way that humans can, leading to errors that are often due to misinterpretation.” People are surprisingly great when it comes to filling in missing information and subconsciously correcting for speakers’ errors. Homonyms, complex deixis, and even complete omission of entire words or phrases seldom prevent us from understanding one another. While modern AI-powered voice-control systems are much better than the technology from 10 years ago, true natural communication with real-time feedback is still impossible.
With errors also comes the necessity to invest more time to correct them. This can turn a quick Google search into a minute-long order, which isn’t all that bad unless you add up how much extra time it takes you to get things done over a long period of time. “Most of the time it really would be just as easy to press the button for the desired action (or macro of commands) on a button panel or graphical user interface. Saying the voice command, waiting for it to be acknowledged and the command sent is simply slower than pressing a button,” writes Aaron Green.
Another major disadvantage of voice control over graphical user interfaces is background noise interference. For voice control systems to work properly, you need to be in a quiet environment, undisturbed by ambient noise and people talking. Such conditions may not always be possible to achieve, although headphones with noise-cancelling microphones do help to some extent.
Despite the obvious shortcomings of voice control systems, Vlad Sejnoha, chief technology officer of Nuance Communications, a Burlington-based company that dominates the market for speech recognition with its Dragon software, believes that “within a few years, mobile voice interfaces will be much more pervasive and powerful,” according to MIT Technology Review. “I should just be able to talk to it without touching it,” Sejnoha says.
Ransomware WorksRecently, a server of a police department in Cockrell Hill, Texas, was encrypted by a group of hackers who used an email with a spoofed address to infect the system and demanded $4,000 to unlock the files, reports Dark Reading. The police ignored the demand of the hackers and lost eight years of documents, photos, and videos.
The police department in Texas wasn’t the only victim of cyber-attacks. According to the 2016/2017 Kroll Annual Global Fraud and Risk Report, 85% of executives say they were hit with a cyber incident in the past year. A survey by Risk Based Security revealed that, in 2016, over 4.2 billion records were exposed in 4,149 cyber incidents.
As illustrated by the rise in ransomware distribution, hackers have apparently finally found an effective way how to make a good living. “2016, also designated as ‘year of ransomware’ has seen enormous growth in Ransomware diffusion, transmission and ransom thieving. So much so, that criminals have made cyberware models and invite amateur crooks to host the Ransomware flag to newer heights. The wreak havoc is seeing no stoppage anytime soon. Until now, Ransomware flow has seen an increase of 500% from the previous year,” writes Minal Khatri.
IoT Under AttackAs the market for IoT devices grows, it will become an increasingly more viable target for a new generation of ransomware attacks. Right now, manufacturers and security researchers spend around $350 million on IoT security. This number is expected to reach $547 million in 2018. An infographic published by GSMA shows that 47% of IoT developers consider security as their top concern. What’s more, 60% of consumers worry about a world of connected things, naming privacy as their main concern and security as their number one worry.
There are two things we can take away from this. First, cyber-attacks, and ransomware, in particular, are real threats that could catastrophically disrupt entire states, let alone the lives of individuals. Second, both manufacturers and consumers are aware of these threats and do their best to fight them. There are now several authoritative IoT security and privacy guidelines, and more will surely appear in the future.
Only time will tell who will gain the upper end in the upcoming cyber-war, but it’s clear that more effective mitigation and prevention methods are needed.
Despite this, most products, and especially smartphones, look the same. The mobile phone market has been relying on the same design language that can be attributed to Apple’s 2007 release of the original iPhone. “Most contemporary smartphones largely look the same—slabs of plastic, metal, and glass, with large touchscreen displays, front and back cameras, and physical buttons thrown here and there for good measure,” writes PhoneArena.
But there’s a form factor that has lately been trying to stir the stale waters and do something original. Major smartphone manufacturers and tech companies such as Google have been trying hard to introduce modular smartphones, with the promise of improved longevity, lower electronic waste, and features that exactly meet the needs of individual customers.
As we approach the connected era, it becomes easier than ever to see just how useful modular smartphones and other electronic devices could be. Electric technicians would likely be willing to pay extra for an infrared camera that would allow them to spot a faulty capacitor, healthcare workers would benefit from having smartphones with integrated blood sugar and heart rate sensor, and personal trainers would surely be happy to turn their mobile phones into full-fledged fitness monitors.
Past, Present, and Future of Modular SmartphonesSome of the earliest modular personal communication devices were released in the late 90s. Visor from Handspring, a maker of Palm OS-based Visor- and Treo-branded personal digital assistants, was most likely the first mobile device that allowed users to expand the PDA’s features using the Springboard expansion slot. Anyone could purchase a dedicated GPS, GSM, modem, or camera expansion module, as well as a large number of third-party modules. The only caveat was the fact that only one module could be used at a time.
An Israeli mobile phone company founded in 2007 by Dov Moran, Modu, tried something different with their 2008 announcement of a modular cellular device. This device could be used in various other devices, enabling users to personalize their mobile’s looks and features by inserting it into a range of unique phone enclosures.
Modu’s story isn’t important because of what they achieved with their own modular phone, but because several of Modu Mobile patents were acquired by Google in 2011. Just two years later, Project Ara was announced by Google.
Enter Project AraDeveloped by the Advanced Technology and Projects team within Motorola Mobility, Project Ara was a modular smartphone project which was supposed to provide standard smartphone components, such as processors, displays, batteries, and cameras, as well as specialized components and frames. “The big sell behind Project Ara was that users could upgrade or switch out components of their phone at will. So, if you wanted a new camera or a faster processor, you would just swap one module out for another. Instead of having to buy a whole new phone, just upgrade individual parts,” writes Christina Warren.
The project was inspired by an earlier effort called Phonebloks. The main goal of this open-source modular smartphone concept was to create an open platform that would allow third-party developers and tinkerers to produce so-called blocks. These blocks would be available in Blokstore, an app store for hardware, as Dave Hakkens, the company’s founder explains his vision. Even though the project has exceeded its goal of 900,000 supporters on Thunderclap by October 2013, it faces many difficulties, such as its overall economic feasibility.
So, when Hakkens started collaborating with Motorola on Project Ara, it looked like the future was bright for modular smartphones. While Project Ara didn’t offer such a high degree of modularity as Phoneblock, it still looked amazing. The central part of Project Ara smartphones would be a frame with a built-in battery, processor, antenna, radios, memory, and display components. The team behind the project has even developed a brand-new internal bus that can handle devices that may come and go at any time, offering data speeds up to 11.9Gbps.
Promotional videos showed musicians adding multiple loudspeakers and a high-fidelity microphone. Other modules were designed to provide health and fitness tracking features, add a secondary display, kickstand, storing compartment, and other more or less useful things.
Sadly, it seems that all work on Project Ara was suspended last year. According to Reuters, “Axing Project Ara is one of the first steps in a campaign to unify Google’s various hardware efforts, which range from Chromebook laptops to Nexus phones.” In other words, Google has realized that there’s no room for modular smartphones.
The Era of Upgradable Gadgets May Be OverProject Ara isn’t the only modular platform that has failed to go anywhere. The sales of the LG G5 are below expectations, not in small part because of numerous complaints about broken modules and phone issues. “Common issues appear to be broken power buttons, blown out speakers, and issues with the small gap where the removable battery ‘chin’ compartment meets the phone’s upper body,” writes Raymond Wong. Among the modules available for the G5 are a dedicated camera module with a physical shutter button, a hi-fi module designed in collaboration with Bang and Olufsen to add high-quality audio playing capabilities to the LG G5, and a battery module.
There’s also the Moto Z and Moto Mods, a family of snap-on extensions that magnetically attach to the back of the phone, adding specific features and functions. The current Moto Mod lineup includes a high-quality speaker from JBL, a compact projector that can project up to 70” on any surface, Hasselblad camera with 10x optical zoom and xenon flash, a battery pack, a magnetic vehicle dock, and others. Unlike the G5, Moto Mods don’t seem to go anywhere, but it’s safe to say that they failed to become as popular as Motorola would have hoped.
What’s more, the Moto Z and LG G5 aren’t nearly as modular as Project Ara or Phonebloks were intended to be. Rather than being primary components, these modules are more like accessories—very smart accessories, but still just accessories.
What has the Future in Store for Modular Smartphones?Given all the above, it may seem that modular smartphones have proven to be a dead end. That’s probably true, to some extent. Motorola wants to expand the Moto Mods program and attract indie developers and makers, and Otterbox has released a modular case for the iPhone, which gives users attachments for everything from tripods to lenses to flash storage. This goes to show that people still care about modularity, but only to a certain degree.
As Christina Warren writes, “It’s nice in theory to think you upgrade your gadgets, but for better or worse, we live in a disposable gadget era. You use something for a few years and then either gift it or recycle it.” If we compare smartphones from 3-4 years ago with smartphones that are available on the market today, we can clearly see what Christina is talking about.
“Moreover, the idea of actually upgrading your phone piece-by-piece is kind of a pain in the ass. You start out with a starter phone, but by the time you upgrade the camera, the processor, and the memory chip—you probably could have just bought a brand-new phone. And your new phone would probably be more advanced, snappier, and more fun to look at. It would probably cost less to just buy a new phone, too,” Christina adds.
What’s perhaps the most important is the fact that majority of customers only care about smartphones when their contract is due for renewal, and they can choose a new one either for free or for a small price. Modular smartphones don’t fit into this cycle, but smart accessories do. They could be offered as optional extras by retailers and cellular providers, and they would also solve the problem of how to maintain the stock of modules.
With Bluetooth 5 officially adopted by the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) as the latest version of the Bluetooth core specification, there’s nothing stopping smartphone manufacturers and third-party accessories manufacturers from creating a new generation of mobile phone accessories—one that would fulfill the promises made by the developers of modular smartphones.
It will still take some time before such accessories hit the market, but Moto Mods and the modular iPhone case from Otterbox already hint at what they could offer and how they could bridge the gap between fully modular smartphones and dumb accessories.
Mirai (未来) is a Japanese word that means future. The name was given to the malware by Anna-senpai, a member of the hacking community Hackforums. “When I first go in DDoS industry, I wasn’t planning on staying in it long,” begins Anna-senpai (Senpai is an honorific suffix in Japanese that is used to refer to superiors and seniors) the now notorious forum post in which the author of the malware publicly released its source code. In the post, Anna-senpai then proceeds to give detailed instructions how to use the botnet, adjust its various configuration options, set up cross-compilers, among other things.
Since the public release of the source code, there have been a number of new Mirai variants involved in several large-scale IoT attacks. Rick Holland, vice president of strategy at the cyber security defense firm Digital Shadows, says that “Digital Shadows researchers have observed a growing community of Mirai users asking for help and offering each other tips and advice.”
The thing that makes Mirai so effective is not that the malware is particularly well-designed or that it leverages some unknown vulnerability through clever programming. Mirai is so effective because it is highly adaptable, allowing it to quickly take over newly released IoT devices.
Market ExplosionAccording to IDC, by 2020, the global IoT market is forecast to grow to nearly $1.7 trillion as a result of over 200 billion devices, a steep rise from 15 billion devices that are connected today. It seems that everyone is developing new IoT solutions for established industries to niche markets alike. Things are moving so fast that before one company starts selling their recently-announced internet-enabled security camera, half a dozen of other companies launch similar cameras to compete with them.
In a market like this, one cannot afford to delay the launch even by a single day. Security and optimization often have to give way to core features and Kickstarter promises. Consequently, people are adopting vulnerable products that directly access the internet, making them easy targets for malware such as Mirai.
Most people don’t even realize that they have been affected by IoT malware in the first place. The particular device may act up, the internet speed may occasionally drop to a crawl, but nothing worse usually happens. “The ultimate goal for many of these IoT threats is to build strong botnets in order to launch distributed denial of service attacks,” Symantec researchers say. In other words, end-users are not the primary target; they are merely a means to an end.
As such, customers themselves have very little incentive to do anything about the situation. Why pay $30 more for an older version of a LED light bulb and a few vague promises about security when the potential negative consequences of buying a less secure alternative seem so farfetched?
“The perfect storm is brewing that will pummel our Nation’s public and private critical infrastructures with wave upon wave of devastating cyber attacks. The Mirai malware offers malicious cyber actors an asymmetric quantum leap in capability; not because of sophistication or any innovative DDoS code, rather it offers a powerful development platform that can be optimized and customized according to the desired outcome of a layered attack by an unsophisticated adversary,” write James Scott and Drew Spaniel in the introductory paragraph to their Rise of the Machines research paper written in December 2016 for the Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology.
Security as a PrioritySadly, there is nothing that can be done to slow down the huge influx of flawed IoT devices that are fueling humongous botnets such as Mirai. They will find their way to the market one way or another. According to Craig Spiezle, the executive director and president of the non-profit online security and privacy watchdog group the Online Trust Alliance (OTA), one answer is to develop a comprehensive IoT device certification program such as OTA’s Trust Framework.
“OTA released the IoT Trust Framework, a strategic set of foundational principles providing guidance for developers, device manufacturers, and service providers to help enhance the privacy, security, and lifecycle of their products,” explains the group on their official website. Their goals are similar to what the OWASP Internet of Things Project is trying to achieve. “The project looks to define a structure for various IoT sub-projects such as Attack Surface Areas, Testing Guides and Top Vulnerabilities.”
With effective IoT certification programs in place, the only thing left to do is raise consumer awareness about the importance of purchasing certified devices, instead of cheaply-made alternatives. This is where things start to look rather bleak. When we look back at email security, mobile malware, or even the recent spike in ransomware attacks, we can see a clear lag in consumer awareness. Usually, things have to spiral out of control so much that even mass media start reporting on the issue before consumers become aware of basic security precautions.
This could mean years of IoT Wild West, similar to the lack of web security during the early 2000s. “Mirai is certainly not going away anytime soon,” Holland says.
In the meantime, you can educate yourself on the issue, raise awareness about IoT security problems, use IoT security best practices, and, above all, think twice before exposing any part of your home, business, or physical infrastructure to the internet.