Oh great, now our smart speakers can attack us with harmful sounds

researcher warns smart speakers can be hacked to emit harmful noise man with fingers in ears
John Rensten/Getty Images

If you were at all spooked by the recent news that teams of humans may be listening to your smart speaker interactions, then this next revelation may cause you to eye your device with renewed suspicion.

Why? Because it appears that many of today’s Wi-Fi- and Bluetooth-connected speakers have the potential to attack us with harmful sounds.

The news comes courtesy of PricewaterhouseCoopers security researcher Matt Wixey who said that many types of speakers — not only stand-alone smart speakers — can be turned into low-grade cyber-weapons with relative ease.

Wixey made the claims during a presentation at the Def Con security conference in Las Vegas on Sunday, the BBC reported.


Sonic weapons that can shred your eardrums are already a thing, but the idea of a hacker — whether state-sponsored or acting alone — gaining control of common household gadgets to cause a similar degree of cacophonic chaos hasn’t been widely talked about before now.

In one of his experiments involving wireless headphones, smartphones, laptops, and smart speakers (product names were not revealed), Wixey was able to take control of the devices before making them emit sounds that could “cause physical harm, harass individuals, or disrupt larger organizations.”

The researcher started by using software to search for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth networks for vulnerable speakers. Once identified, malware developed by his team took control of the devices before making them play the potentially damaging sounds, whether beyond the range of human hearing (but still able to cause harm) or audible.

In a real-world scenario, a hacker would be able to select the kind of audio the speaker played. It could, for example, be designed to merely irritate the listener, though a more sinister attack could try to disorientate or even damage a person’s hearing.

In another of Wixey’s experiments using a smart speaker, the force of the audio was so powerful that it “generated enough heat to start melting its internal components,” rendering it useless, according to Wired.

A number of the takeovers were able to be performed locally or remotely, while others needed the perpetrator to be much closer to the device, or in some cases to have physical access.

Wixey and his team are contacting tech firms to offer advice on how they can protect their speaker-equipped gadgets from falling prey to hackers intent on scaring, injuring, or intimidating with potentially harmful sounds. Indeed, the maker of the damaged speaker has since issued a software patch after being informed of the vulnerability.

Could be done at a much larger scale

Wixey told Wired that with the world becoming increasingly connected, “acoustic cyber-weapon attacks could potentially be done at a much larger scale using something like sound systems at arenas or commercial PA systems in office buildings.”

While the chances of hackers making your speaker becoming your ear’s worst enemy currently remains slim, it’s nevertheless concerning that, according to Wixey’s findings, so many of today’s devices can be manipulated in this way.

But thanks to his team’s ongoing work, makers of such equipment are now waking up to the reality, and have the best possible opportunity to close any vulnerabilities that exist with their devices.


Critical Bluetooth security bug discovered. Protect yourself with a quick update

Researchers have discovered a major new security flaw in Bluetooth, which could leave millions of devices at risk of a malicious hack. The attack allows a hacker to “break” Bluetooth security without anyone knowing.
Emerging Tech

The U.S. Army is developing A.I. missiles that can choose their own targets

The U.S. military wants to equip itself with a new type of artificial intelligence-guided missile, which will use A.I. smarts to pursue its targets. Prototypes will be shown off in 2021.
Home Theater

Spotify’s favorite speaker feature lets your tunes follow you with just a tap

Spotify appears to be testing a new feature that lets users seamlessly switch their listening session to a preferred Spotify Connect device when the Spotify app detects that it's nearby.
Home Theater

Your complete guide to Dolby's immersive surround-sound technology

Dolby Atmos surround sound has come a long way in the last few years, seeing widespread adoption in home theater gear from A/V receivers to sound bars. If you've got questions about the format, we've got all the answers you need.
Buying Guides

Back to school smart home gadgets under $50 for your dorm

Today’s students are accustomed to a high-tech lifestyle, which they'll want to maintain when they start college. But they're also strapped for cash, so these back to school smart home gadgets under $50 for the dorm are perfect!
Smart Home

Google Assistant’s reminders will soon nag your significant other for you

Let Google take the heat for all that nagging: Google Assistant will soon allow you to assign reminders to others. The feature will roll out to Google Assistant-enabled phones, speakers, and displays over the next few weeks.
Smart Home

Startup Camect is on track to deliver a private, unified smart camera hub

It's not every day you run across a crowdfunded startup that has raised nearly three times its goal but startup Camect has done just that to fund the development of a secure smart camera hub expected to launch in 2020.
Smart Home

Smart thermostats explained: How they work and how they save you money

Thinking of buying a smart thermostat, but don't know exactly what you're looking for? We explain how smart thermostats work, the features they offer, and how they can save you money.
Smart Home

The best pet tech products on the market for dog and cat owners

Pet-centric tech has come a long way in the past decade. From self-cleaning litter boxes to DNA tests designed to trace your pup's ancestry through the ages, here is some of the best pet tech available.
Smart Home

Amazon and Walmart match lower prices on Echo Dot and Google Home Mini

Amazon and Walmart resumed their price competition on the entry-level smart speakers for the Amazon Echo and Google Nest Home smart home ecosystems. The price cuts have started with 40% discounts on the Echo Dot and the Google Home Mini.
Smart Home

Alexa’s Custom Interfaces hope to augment gadgets, games, and smart toys

Alexa is growing smarter again with a new feature for developers called Custom Interfaces. The feature is aimed at augmenting interactivity between users of Alexa-powered devices like Amazon's Echo and developer's newest products.
Smart Home

Your smart oven might be more ready for breakfast than you realize

Several owners of the June Smart Oven have reported the device turning on and preheating in the middle of the night without any input. June says this is due to user error, but customers are concerned.
Smart Home

Alexa wants to be your college mom with these awesome skills

If you love Alexa at home, you're going to love her even more when you go off to college. She has skills that can help with dorm laundromats, tracking your team, keep track of campus events, and more.
Smart Home

Automate your home and save money with these smart plugs

Smart plugs can make your dumb outlets smart. To help you choose the right one, we've rounded up the best smart plugs for your consideration. This selection covers smart plugs rated for indoor use.