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posted by mrpg on Saturday April 16 2022, @05:39PM   Printer-friendly
from the hush dept.

You're muted... or are you? Videoconferencing apps may listen even when mic is off:

Kassem Fawaz's brother was on a videoconference with the microphone muted when he noticed that the microphone light was still on—indicating, inexplicably, that his microphone was being accessed.

[...] "It turns out, in the vast majority of cases, when you mute yourself, these apps do not give up access to the microphone," says Fawaz. "And that's a problem. When you're muted, people don't expect these apps to collect data."

[...] They found that all of the apps they tested occasionally gather raw audio data while mute is activated, with one popular app gathering information and delivering data to its server at the same rate regardless of whether the microphone is muted or not.

The researchers then decided to see if they could use data collected on mute from that app to infer the types of activities taking place in the background. Using machine learning algorithms, they trained an activity classifier using audio from YouTube videos representing six common background activities, including cooking and eating, playing music, typing and cleaning. Applying the classifier to the type of telemetry packets the app was sending, the team could identify the background activity with an average of 82% accuracy.

[...] "With a camera, you can turn it off or even put your hand over it, and no matter what you do, no one can see you," says Fawaz. "I don't think that exists for microphones."


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  • (Score: 5, Insightful) by TheGratefulNet on Saturday April 16 2022, @05:49PM (10 children)

    by TheGratefulNet (659) on Saturday April 16 2022, @05:49PM (#1237496)

    its called: disabled audio in BIOS and use external usb audio

    then, you unplug your audio when you want it to be gone.

    if you want analog, go with usb/analog (often a green and a red 1/8" jack). you can then mute at the analog level using old style analog mic; shunting the mic line to ground after a blocking cap is often a working solution.

    onboard devices like wifi and bt are also disable-able and I suggest doing that so you have full control over all your devices. when its unplugged, you know its off.

    --
    "It is now safe to switch off your computer."
    • (Score: 2, Interesting) by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 16 2022, @06:20PM (2 children)

      by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 16 2022, @06:20PM (#1237507)

      Except for when rouge software uses the speaker as a microphone... can be done in Windows with free software.

      • (Score: 4, Interesting) by SomeGuy on Saturday April 16 2022, @06:57PM

        by SomeGuy (5632) on Saturday April 16 2022, @06:57PM (#1237513)

        This is very true. A simple speaker by itself can act as a crappy microphone. Try it some time, it works.

        Speakers with amplifiers, it depends on how crappy the amplifier circuit is. It may or may not leak enough of the signal back to be detected.

        Combine that with the fact that many "modern" sound chips allow users to configure which physical port is used for Mic, Line In, and Speaker, all without any regard for security. So, ANY OS with access to that chip feature can flip around speaker and microphone ports.

      • (Score: 2) by janrinok on Sunday April 17 2022, @11:27AM

        by janrinok (52) Subscriber Badge on Sunday April 17 2022, @11:27AM (#1237693) Journal

        Does this apply to other colours of software too, or just the rouge colour?

        I think my speaker is black so I am assuming that I am OK.

    • (Score: 2, Informative) by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 16 2022, @06:30PM

      by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 16 2022, @06:30PM (#1237510)

      onboard devices like wifi and bt are also disable-able

      In theory, yes. You have to sniff all the traffic in and out of your device to verify it. The only sure way is a physical switch or to cut the wire

    • (Score: 2) by SomeGuy on Saturday April 16 2022, @06:45PM

      by SomeGuy (5632) on Saturday April 16 2022, @06:45PM (#1237511)

      Exactly this. I have a nice analog microphone with a physical switch. Absolutely no question ever about what it is doing.

      Although it can confuse some conferencing participants as whatever conferencing software will not automatically show others that you are "muted".

    • (Score: 2) by coolgopher on Saturday April 16 2022, @10:54PM

      by coolgopher (1157) on Saturday April 16 2022, @10:54PM (#1237555)

      Or headsets with a hardware mute switch.
      I just fold up the mic boom on mine. The mixer didn't register any input after that, so I doubt zoom et al would either.

    • (Score: 3, Insightful) by Immerman on Saturday April 16 2022, @10:55PM (2 children)

      by Immerman (3985) on Saturday April 16 2022, @10:55PM (#1237557)

      Webcam/laptop/etc. makers could easily do one better - just put a physical mute switch on the mic. Flip the switch, it physical disconnects the mic. The OS doesn't even have to know it happened. All the convenience we already have, with less confusion, and no possibility of being circumvented by hackers.

      There's lots of reasons to want to be able to turn off your mic and/or camera, I don't understand why virtually no one supports it. I mean it's literally as easy as adding a switch that severs a key wire, you'd think at least a respectable percentage of devices would try to appeal to the "I like my privacy" crowd.

      • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 18 2022, @04:11PM (1 child)

        by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 18 2022, @04:11PM (#1237933)

        But such a component might add 15 cents to the cost of the device! That is clearly unacceptable!

        • (Score: 2) by Immerman on Monday April 18 2022, @04:28PM

          by Immerman (3985) on Monday April 18 2022, @04:28PM (#1237939)

          And just think how much you could save selling empty toaster boxes instead of putting a toaster in them!

          I'd gladly pay $1 more for the functionality. Maybe even $10. And more importantly it would make for an easy decision between buying a laptop from Company A, rather than an otherwise similar model from a competitor.

    • (Score: 2) by Freeman on Monday April 18 2022, @01:41PM

      by Freeman (732) on Monday April 18 2022, @01:41PM (#1237899) Journal

      I much prefer the external usb audio card that I got. It has a on/off for mic and my headset has a on/off switch as well. My new little NUC, that work recently replaced my toasted all-in-one, has a tiny speaker hole in the chassis. There's no easy physical switch on that thing.

      --
      Joshua 1:9 "Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee"
  • (Score: -1, Troll) by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 16 2022, @06:18PM (4 children)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 16 2022, @06:18PM (#1237506)

    you use proprietary videoconferencing apps, you deserve to be treated like the cowardly whore-ass slave you are.

    • (Score: 4, Touché) by MostCynical on Saturday April 16 2022, @08:23PM (3 children)

      by MostCynical (2589) on Saturday April 16 2022, @08:23PM (#1237524) Journal

      I think you mis-spelled "employed"

      --
      "I guess once you start doubting, there's no end to it." -Batou, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex
      • (Score: -1, Troll) by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 16 2022, @08:26PM (2 children)

        by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 16 2022, @08:26PM (#1237527)

        thanks for proving my point.

        • (Score: 4, Insightful) by MostCynical on Saturday April 16 2022, @09:06PM (1 child)

          by MostCynical (2589) on Saturday April 16 2022, @09:06PM (#1237536) Journal

          unless you have built or stolen the device you are using to access this site, you are a participant in society.
          There are rules, and expectations.

          you can choose not to participate, but then you are likely living in a cave..

          I quite like hospitals, libraries, schools, and living in a house.

          Get back to me when anarcho-syndicalism can ensure quality medical infrastructure.

          --
          "I guess once you start doubting, there's no end to it." -Batou, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex
          • (Score: -1, Flamebait) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 17 2022, @04:04AM

            by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 17 2022, @04:04AM (#1237621)

            You don't understand. You can have all those things under anarcho-syndicalism, you just have to be strong and bootstrappy. If you can't get those things under anarcho-syndicalism, then you're a weakling moocher or vandal. The weak deserve to die of preventable diseases.

  • (Score: 3, Interesting) by kazzie on Saturday April 16 2022, @07:05PM (3 children)

    by kazzie (5309) Subscriber Badge on Saturday April 16 2022, @07:05PM (#1237514)

    I tend to prefer using my laptop's mute switch as opposed to dragging my cursor over to a particular button to mute or un-mute during an online meeting. (There's also a switch on the dangling volume control of my headset, but I tend to forget about that one.)

    The trouble is that this local mute information isn't conveyed to the rest of the call. This can be awkward when the inevitable complaints of "there's feedback/background noise, can everyone who's not speaking please mute" surface, and my indicator suggests that I'm one of the culprits. It becomes even more fun when the call co-ordinator silently force-mutes everyone in the app: later I unmute my local control and start speaking, only to find that I'm talking to myself.

    (Thankfully the lion's share of my videoconferencing is done where I am the teacher and call co-ordinator, so I am obviously un-muted most of the time. I also tend to be the only one using a proper headset, too.)

    • (Score: 2) by hendrikboom on Saturday April 16 2022, @09:38PM (2 children)

      by hendrikboom (1125) Subscriber Badge on Saturday April 16 2022, @09:38PM (#1237542) Homepage Journal

      my laptop's mute switch

      My laptop has a physical switch that cuts power to the microphone and camera. Off means off.

      • (Score: 4, Interesting) by zafiro17 on Saturday April 16 2022, @11:27PM (1 child)

        by zafiro17 (234) on Saturday April 16 2022, @11:27PM (#1237565) Homepage

        That's the way to go. Sadly, the "all in one devices" with everything integrated are now a risk, because you can't be given physical switches like that. When you're on a desktop you can just unplug the devices and be done with them. On a phone/tablet with microphone etc. already built in, there's no way in hardware. I go back and forth between loving my cellphone and wanting to leave it at home once and for all. Tired of all the tracking. Not knowing whether my conference software is listening makes me want to uninstall it and be done.

        --
        Dad always thought laughter was the best medicine, which I guess is why several of us died of tuberculosis - Jack Handey
        • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 17 2022, @12:19PM

          by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 17 2022, @12:19PM (#1237696)

          You can, they just choose not to because that would cost a few cents. It's the same reason why you no longer see physical switches to enable airplane mode on cellphones. It costs a bit and prevents them from spying as effectively.

  • (Score: 1, Informative) by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 16 2022, @07:55PM

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 16 2022, @07:55PM (#1237522)

    What apps were tested and what were the results. The apps need to be very publicly named and shamed. They don't give two shits what some academic paper very few people will ever even see says; large negative publicity is the only hope of effecting even small positive change.

  • (Score: 4, Interesting) by c on Saturday April 16 2022, @08:28PM (2 children)

    by c (3119) on Saturday April 16 2022, @08:28PM (#1237528)

    Cancelling the output of the loudspeaker that is captured by the microphone is needed for teleconferencing. It seems that the echo cancellation is being done in the cloud when it should be done locally.

    • (Score: 2) by hendrikboom on Saturday April 16 2022, @09:37PM (1 child)

      by hendrikboom (1125) Subscriber Badge on Saturday April 16 2022, @09:37PM (#1237540) Homepage Journal

      Don't need to cancel loudspeaker signal through microphone when the mike is muted.

      • (Score: 3, Informative) by c on Saturday April 16 2022, @11:50PM

        by c (3119) on Saturday April 16 2022, @11:50PM (#1237571)

        Actually, you still want to adapt the channel model. When you suddenly turn off mute to talk while someone else is talking, the system needs to know the present acoustic channel to cancel that loudspeaker signal. If you don't, everyone gets an annoying echo depending on the adaptation speed of the AEC. It's hard to adapt when you and someone else is talking (known as double-talk in the AEC literature), but easy to adapt when you're not talking.

  • (Score: 1, Interesting) by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 16 2022, @09:56PM

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 16 2022, @09:56PM (#1237543)

    My internet has occasional dropouts (long ping times), so when Zooming or using WebEx I usually use my telephone (land line) for audio. Each conferencing app has a different setup (and some don't allow telephone audio at all) but I've figured most of them out. Bonus is that the audio is usually better quality than internet-voice.

    And back on topic, my portable phone (radio phone) has a mute button which I've tested (by calling someone next to me on their call phone).

    I suppose even after choosing "phone audio" there is a possibility that Zoom (etc) is still listening to my laptop mic? It's an older ThinkPad with a mic mute button that lights up orange, but who knows what that really does...

  • (Score: 5, Insightful) by zafiro17 on Saturday April 16 2022, @11:20PM

    by zafiro17 (234) on Saturday April 16 2022, @11:20PM (#1237562) Homepage

    I was part of a generation where software was built to solve people's problems and when we used it we were amazed. Coming from an age of card catalogs, manual calculations, doing things the hard way, software seemed like huge leaps of progress. But there's a whole generation of people being raised in an age where software is manipulative, full of dark patterns, and offered "for free" in exchange for rapacious data collection and secret-selling. People are learning not to trust it.

    This microphone thing is exemplary of a generation of software developers building software we are learning not to trust. It's a serious issue. Whether the microphone issue has a real technical reason, not being clear about it comes across as sketchy and untrustworthy. Why trust anything they say?

    --
    Dad always thought laughter was the best medicine, which I guess is why several of us died of tuberculosis - Jack Handey
  • (Score: 2, Interesting) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 17 2022, @02:01AM (3 children)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 17 2022, @02:01AM (#1237589)

    You’ve clicked the mute button in, say, Google Meet.

    Then you start talking or even cough and Google Meet pops up a little warning along the lines of “Are you trying to speak? Nobody except Meta can hear you right now because I’m pretending you’re muted.”

    Now you know you need to clock that Unmute button.

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 17 2022, @12:22PM

      by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 17 2022, @12:22PM (#1237697)

      That's probably the justification. They can't pop up a message telling you that you're muted without the system listening. Sort of like how those assistants can't respond to the requests if they aren't constantly listening to everything.

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 17 2022, @07:08PM

      by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 17 2022, @07:08PM (#1237741)

      Or you mute the actual microphone in pulseaudio and then you get a message "Your microphone seems to not be working correctly."

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 18 2022, @04:15PM

      by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 18 2022, @04:15PM (#1237934)

      Yeah, I mean the existence of this feature means they are not trying to hide the fact that they can still hear you.

      At least not from anyone that can piece together that 2+2=4

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