Voice Assistants

EFF Seeks Right to Jailbreak Alexa, Voice Assistants

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is asking the Library of Congress to give owners of voice assistant devices like Amazon’s Echo, Google Home and other voice assistants the right to “jailbreak” the devices: freeing them from content control features designed to prevent users from running unauthorized code on those platforms. 

The EFF filed a petition with the United States Copyright Office on behalf of owners, small repair shops and parts dealers. EFF is seeking an exemption under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) along the lines of the exemption that allows owners to disable content protection features (or “jailbreak”) their smart phones.

“In addition to smartphones and other mobile devices, the jailbreaking exemption should apply to voice assistant devices such as the Amazon Echo, Google Home, and Apple HomePod,” the petition reads.

In a blog post, Cory Doctorow of EFF said that a DMCA exemption will give owners the right to put their own software on voice assistants as well as open the devices to security researchers. In addition to probing the devices for security holes that could be exploited by a malicious actor, researchers might also gain an understanding of how voice assistants manage the reams of audio and other sensor data they collect from their immediate surroundings.

Voice Assistants
The Electronic Frontier Foundation is arguing that voice assistants should be allowed to be jailbroken, permitting security researchers to analyze their workings

“These gadgets are finding their way into our living rooms, kitchens—even our bedrooms and bathrooms. They have microphones that are always on and listening (many of them have cameras, too), and they’re connected to the Internet. They only run manufacturer-approved apps, and use encryption that prevents security researchers from investigating them and ensuring that they’re working as intended,” Doctorow wrote on the EFF blog.

The US Copyright Office allows petitions for exemptions to the DMCA every three years, with decisions on exemptions handed down by the Librarian of Congress. An exemption would allow individual voice assistant owners to bypass the devices’ bootloaders and activate or disable hardware features without running afoul of DMCA rules about tampering with copy protection features – rules that were envisioned as a way to prevent piracy.

“These are rights that you’ve always had, for virtually every gadget you’ve ever owned—that is, until manufacturers discovered DMCA 1201’s potential to control how you use of their products after they become your property.”

In addition to “voice assistants” the group is also seeking to put a broad category of connected devices it dubs “portable all purpose mobile computing devices” on the list alongside smartphones, tablets and smart watches. Those it defines as devices “that (are) primarily designed to run a wide variety of programs rather than for consumption of a particular type of media content, is equipped with an operating system primarily designed for mobile use, and is intended to be carried or worn by an individual.” That opens the door to a wide range of personal gadgets and wearable technology.

EFF wants the Copyright Office to make clear that researchers and owners are allowed to disable hardware based protections on these devices in order to install their own software. It also wants the Government to make clear that user Terms of Service cannot be used to invalidate the exception.

“We don’t have all the answers about how to make smart speakers better, or more secure, but we are one hundred percent certain that banning people from finding out what’s wrong with their smart speakers and punishing anyone who tries to improve them isn’t helping,” Doctorow wrote.

The group has found success in pushing for exemptions before. In 2015 it was successful in convincing the Librarian of Congress to grant DMCA exceptions for everything from ripping DVDs to jailbreaking smartphones and tablets to analyzing mobile device software for vulnerabilities.

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Devices like Amazon’s popular Echo have raised civil liberties fears before. The devices sport wireless interfaces supporting Bluetooth and other protocols that can be manipulated. Hackers have shown how the devices can be repurposed as listening and surveillance tools by hackers or (potentially) governments. Given that the devices must always be listening for voice prompts, questions have also been raised about what the companies do with the audio they collect from users.

The larger question raised by the exemptions is one of ownership. The growth of software powered devices has created a golden age for content and copyright control features, limiting the right to repair everything from cameras, phones home appliances to cars and farm equipment. Doctorow and EFF, along with groups like iFixit, have argued that owners and creators have the right to repair, modify and enhance software based products, just as they can mechanical products, free of interference from the manufacturer. As it stands, right to repair laws are pending in a number of state legislatures.