News / Hello computer, are you secure?

When Amazon unveiled its little Echo Dot device in 2015, it ushered in the kind of paradigm shift in computing not seen for decades. Suddenly you could get things done just by asking. No mouse, keyboard or screen – no wires! Spend any length of time with one of these wonders (now copied by both Google and Apple) and you begin to realise that nothing will be the same again.

Since 2015, Amazon has been rewarded for being first to market  by capturing some 70% of the US voice enabled computing market and is doing similar business in Europe. Like most recent game changers in computing, it is being driven by the demands of the consumer market.
Speech is by far the most natural way to interact with a machine, just as it is with humans. With the onset of intelligent speech recognition devices we are making the quantum leap from a computing equivalent of the grunting, nudging and pointing of our primeval ancestors.

Contrast the routine for completing a simple task with Alexa and that of a conventional computing device. To buy something on Amazon you have to fire up either an app or a web page, find the object you want, click it on it, add it to the basket and so on. With Alexa you simply say, “I’d like to buy some bananas” or whatever takes your fancy.

Consider for a moment the advance that this represents. There is no hardware, no pointing device (although a new version of Echo will soon come with a screen) – just voice data being captured and translated almost instantaneously by Amazon’s almost (but not quite yet) AI based servers in the cloud. And as more people use the devices, the more Alexa learns.

It is undoubtedly the future, certainly in the smart home, but potentially in the enterprise too – which maybe where the trouble could start.

Imagine voice activated search that actually finds exactly what you’re looking for, pulls up the right database, creates an application or analyses  data stacks – all by voice only. Computing would be more than mobile, it would be borderless and driven from the cloud. Employees would be the new, soft and endlessly mobile endpoints.

OK, in a world that is still struggling to make legacy systems work together and Windows XP can be taken out with ransomware, perhaps the new paradigm is a few years off yet.

Plus, the employee as an endpoint could well bring its own problems, in terms of security. Jezz Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, claims that the mute button on any Echo device can render it unhackable by virus borne attacks as the microphone is analog. It cannot be switched on remotely. Hackers would have to physically present to turn the device on and speak to it and access any potentially useful information.

While hard to argue with the security of an analog switch in a digital world, such reassurance will not be enough for IT security managers or CIOs. The scenario for voice in the enterprise is much less clear but it is one that engineers and CEOs are going to have to confront sooner or later. Just as the iPhone and instant messaging apps entered the enterprise on the back of consumer demand, so will intelligent voice computing.

Identity and access management will have to take on a whole new dimension if those new human endpoints are using voice to access and process data. The voice platform revolution is coming to a desktop near you, now is the time to start thinking about how to embrace it, and secure it.

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