Blocking smartphone cameras is easy. Protecting microphones is hard. Here’s why.

Over the last couple of years I’ve become much more security- and privacy-focused. Why?

First, I’ve invested a ton of time understanding how easy it is to break into electronic devices. If you haven’t noticed, hacking systems and devices happens as frequently as Trump tweets.

Second, the explosion of security vulnerabilities is everywhere – cars, computers, speakers, and of course, smartphones. Everything has a chip in it now and everything is connected to the internet. This, along with sloppy code, is why so many things are getting hacked.

And third, with my line of work, I need to protect my complete digital footprint and the people around me (coworkers, family and friends) as hackers try every angle to understand what we’re working on at Privoro.

(Side note: Although we do have hackers try to break into my/our systems all the time, most executives are experiencing the same type of attacks. I’m not special, I just happen to have exposure to things hackers would like to know.)

Moving on, the summary on hacking is this: Almost everything is hackable. If you talk to any security expert, they’ll all tell you the same thing, so you don’t need to take my word for it. Sure, you can certainly make things more difficult to break into but if someone is determined enough to find out information, they’ll eventually get it. Might take years, but it will eventually happen.

Karate chop, camera block

Although there are lots of ways that hackers (or overreaching apps) can gather information about you, today we’re going to discuss why blocking cameras is easy and protecting microphones is hard.

I absolutely love the upswing of the general population being more security- and privacy-focused. News of all the hacks, Facebook psychological warfare, Spectre and Meltdown, and more have really raised the awareness of people. And accordingly, people are starting to take action.

Wagering a guess, I’d say around 10–20% of the population is now blocking their cameras, which is fantastic! Not long ago it was near single-digit percent and now I see all walks of life starting to wise up and take action. What’s even better, the youth movement of protecting their information and devices is great to see as they’re wise to all the monitoring, watching and listening our electronic devices are doing.

Obviously, it’s really easy to block cameras because all you have to do is put something (as long as it isn’t clear) in front of the camera, and boom, you’re protected. Cheap, easy and effective. But blocking cameras only solves half the problem because if your electronic device is hacked (or legitimate apps are overreaching), third parties can take control of everything, including your microphones.

Microphone check: test 1, 2, 3

If you happen to be an acoustical engineer, you already know this, but it’s incredibly hard to stop sound. I always get a good laugh when I see the picture of Mark Zuckerberg protecting his laptop microphones with tape because it doesn’t work. Tape might muffle audio but it certainly doesn’t protect against audio eavesdropping, which is the goal. Right, Mark?

To protect microphones, active audio jamming must be employed. This means creating a very specific and randomized sound wave that masks the intelligibility and presence of human speech – after all, protecting microphones really means protecting the conversations that are happening around microphones so they can’t be picked up through compromised digital devices such as smartphones. Jamming works by sealing channels to microphones and drowning them in sound that makes speech impossible to decipher. So, jamming isn’t blocking the sound so that it is inaudible (removing sound) – like Zuck’s tape over the microphone example – it means adding sound to the equation so nothing can be pulled from the mix that makes sense. While this may sound easy, it is really hard to do and took us a lot of time (and money) to figure out. Fortunately, we figured it out and our solution has been validated by some of the leading security experts and acoustical engineers in the world – some who have already adopted our technology to protect their own conversations.

How do I know?

I’m not a security expert, nor an acoustical engineer, so how do I know all this information? Well, we spent years doing research and testing how to stop hackers and overreaching apps from leveraging microphones to gather information. Doesn’t matter if you’re talking about going to dinner or acquiring a company, there are plenty of people who want your verbal information. Yes, even you, the person who thinks you have nothing to hide. Doesn’t matter. All information can be leveraged for something, from serving you ads to adjusting your car insurance rates to stealing the intellectual property of the company for which you work. Even the most innocent of information reveals something. And if you don’t believe me, just search for “Facebook Cambridge Analytics” and that will slow your roll.

Amazon, Google, Facebook and many others are moving toward a voice interface versus a typing interface. Just look around, Alexas and OK Googles are everywhere and being embedded into everything (speakers, cars, shower heads, everything). So yeah, we might want to start taking the protection of what we say more seriously.

The key to using and protecting microphones is this: We will want to leverage microphones and thus digital assistants when we want them to do a specific task like placing a stock trade, making a dinner reservation or calling a car. But the other 99% of the time, we’ll want to give those microphones and digital assistants an earful of truly random, human-masking noise.

Any solutions today?

Well I’m glad you ask. There is really only one mobile privacy solution on the market today that can effectively block microphones, and we at Privoro have built it. Today we support the iPhone models with SafeCase and Privacy Guard, and in the future we’re developing solutions for other platforms (other smartphones, computers, cars, Alexas and more).

Blocking microphones is tough, but making it frictionless, cost-effective and functional for consumers is even more challenging. We’re hard at work as we hear the need (and demand) from our customers. And microphone vulnerabilities are only getting worse.

If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading, and as always, feedback and/or suggestions are always welcome.

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