As technology takes on a bigger role in our daily life, we are faced with several challenges, the primary one being privacy.
Right from setting up your shiny new smartphone to installing apps on it you are constantly being asked to share your data on the premise of offering you a tailored experience based on your usage patterns. But all this comes at the expense of having to give permissions such as access to your phone's camera and to its microphone to help it with speech-to-text and for using virtual assistants such as Apple's Siri, Google's Google Assistant and Amazon's Alexa.
But your phone, smart speaker, smartwatch or any other microphone-equipped device isn't supposed to listen to you at all times. Sometimes you just want to feel that you are not being heard or monitored all the time. That's what most of these devices do when you grant them the permission to use your microphone. They are always looking for those magical words that trigger or invoke them. For example, "Hey, Google" or "OK, Google" to invoke Google Assistant on your phone or any Google Assistant-equipped smart home speaker; or "Hey Siri' on your iPhone, or Apple Watch, or HomePod and "Hey, Alexa" on any Amazon Echo smart speaker or Alexa-powered smartphones.
Here comes the 'mic-jammer' bracelet
These smart devices keep the microphones open which act like their ears, so that they can jump into action on your command. But if you are one of those who don't want to take any chances, there's now a solution.
A team of researchers from the University of Chicago have built an experimental bracelet that jams nearby microphones, including those in smart speakers and assistants, according to a New York Times report.
The rather chunky-looking "bracelet of silence" uses ultrasonic broadcasts or signals from 24 speakers to shut nearby mics, no matter what direction they are in. Any nearby microphones that detect the imperceptible high frequencies as static-like noise that drowns out any speech the wearer would like to keep private. For doing this, the anti-spying gadget takes advantage of non-linearities in its in-built amplifier to leak the ultrasonic noise in the audible range and render the recordings useless.
"It's easy to record there's days.. and this is a useful defense. When you have something private to say, you can activate it in real-time. When they play back the recording, the sound if going to be gone," the report quoted Pedro Lopes, assistant professor at the University of Chicago, who worked on the project, as saying.
The best anti-spy gadget?
From a design perspective though, the chunky bracelet isn't for the fashion-minded, but it shouldn't matter to those who do not want or feel that they are being spied upon. At least, that's the compromise here.
The bracelet not only ensures jamming of mics irrespective of the direction, it also eliminates blind spots through your wrist movement. What this simply means is that it's more effective than stationary jammers and can even scramble hidden mics.
However, you will not be able to use the cyberpunk bracelet anytime soon as it still remains a prototype. The scientists have told the New York Times that they have been approached by investors who would like to commercialize the technology and if everything goes right they estimate that the anti-mic bracelets can be manufactured for roughly $20.
The bracelet seems to us like a gadget that perhaps someone like James Bond would love owning but it's viable for anyone who fears eavesdropping from voice assistants or fears that someone is spying on them.
There seem to be some ethical concerns. For example, if you wear the bracelet and go out in public places, you could end up jamming phone calls and other microphone-dependent devices. While it could help keep confidential business meetings a secret affair, it could also help someone like a corrupt politician avoid accountability. That's pretty much the case with any new technology if it is not used responsibly. As one of the professors who worked on the project puts it, "the future is to have all these devices around you, but you will have to assume they are potentially compromised. Your circle of trust will have to be much smaller, sometimes down to your actual body".