Download: Episode 47.
This week Audrey and I chat about Amazon’s new grocery store, adversarial audio hacks, and Twitter’s Russian Bot email. Enjoy!
- [02:18] Issue 9: Hard Problems
- [05:51] Amazon’s New Checkout-Free Grocery Store Doesn’t Take Food Stamps
- [19:52] Whole Foods employees reveal why stores are facing a crisis of food shortages – Business Insider
- [32:51] AI learns how to fool text-to-speech. That’s bad news for voice assistants
- [34:39] Audio Adversarial Examples
- [47:16] Twitter begins emailing the 677,775 Americans who took Russian election bait [Updated] | Ars Technica
- [56:29] Episode 36: Maybe Skynet is just malware battling each other
- [1:02:24] Open Sourcing History: Using History to Make Your Game Better – YouTube
- [1:05:27] The existential chatroom app you can only use when your phone is dying – The Verge
Issue 9: Hard Problems, now shipping!
Our first issue of 2018 focuses on the hard problems we try to solve in our work and our careers. Get it in the shop now.
Now Broadcasting LIVE most Fridays
We broadcast our episode recordings LIVE on most Fridays at 10am PST. Mark your calendars and visit recompilermag.live to tune-in.
We love hearing from you! Feedback, comments, questions…
We’d love hearing from you, so get in touch!
CHRISTIE: Hello and welcome to The Recompiler, a feminist hacker podcast where we talk about technology in a fun and playful way. I’m your host, Christie Koehler.
Episode 47. This week, Audrey and I chat about Amazon’s new grocery store, adversarial audio hacks, and Twitter’s Russian bot email. Enjoy!
Alright. We should be live. Christie and Audrey here. Are you there, Audrey?
AUDREY: Yup. Hi.
CHRISTIE: Hi. And I see your level’s going up. That’s good. It is January 26, Friday. This will be Episode 47.
AUDREY: We’re getting closer to 50.
CHRISTIE: I think 47 is a prime number.
CHRISTIE: I don’t know, I like prime numbers. How are you doing, Audrey? As I’m sitting here trying to remember how we podcast.
AUDREY: I’m good. I have finally been catching up on some things this week that I feel like I should have done a month ago, like our Holiday Newsletter drawing. But on the other hand, I did the drawing. So we get to send some fun things to people.
CHRISTIE: Awesome. I’m just tweeting really quick that we’re live. Well, I went through 11 months’ worth of email last night. There’s some stuff in there, some interview requests and some let’s-get-together requests that I now have to respond to. But that’s what clipboard managers are for. So, you can paste in the same [inaudible] better late than never. You got any announcements for us?
AUDREY: I do. We have Issue 9: Hard Problems available in the shop.
CHRISTIE: Aren’t they all hard problems? No, that’s not true.
AUDREY: I don’t know. I mean, many of them are hard problems but also many of the things that we decided to do. Also, I just thought it was really interesting that people had some strong feelings about both technical and personal topics that we encounter working in technology. And so, I think it’s going to be kind of fun and informative to see those things side by side.
CHRISTIE: When you say personal, do you mean like the people aspect of tech problems?
AUDREY: Yeah. Self-development, burnout, education, poor progression.
CHRISTIE: Awesome. And so folks can get that in the Recompiler Shop, shop.recompilermag.com. We have both digital subscriptions and print copies. Can people get an individual copy?
AUDREY: You mean print?
CHRISTIE: Print copy, yes.
AUDREY: Individual print copies, yeah.
CHRISTIE: Or they can also subscribe, right?
AUDREY: So you can subscribe, get the full year. Digital subscriptions get you four digital issues and then if you want just a single print copy, that’s also in the shop.
CHRISTIE: Cool. And you can buy gift subscriptions too, right?
CHRISTIE: If you’ve already got a subscription or you think for the someone you know that would enjoy this issue.
AUDREY: Yeah, for sure.
CHRISTIE: Alright. Any other announcements? Is Issue 10 coming up? Is it in progress, in the works?
AUDREY: Yeah, Issue 10. We’ve been working on selecting the content for it. This is our Science issue and I can tell you that we’re talking to scientists.
CHRISTIE: Yey, scientists!
AUDREY: What I mean is this is just a different contributor set, different set of people coming in to share what they know. And I’m delighted that we get a little bit of a look into what people do and some of the conversations that they’re having within their scientific communities that also have a big impact on us.
CHRISTIE: Awesome! The work I do in my day job, I really [inaudible] just how much this programming a lot of scientists have to be aware of. Tech has sort of infused everything.
AUDREY: Yeah, it definitely has. And when you have these two specialties side by side, scientists do very technical work in terms of the level of detail and the level of knowledge but programming is a specialty of its own. So, when you put these two things side by side, I just think it’s really interesting watching people learn from each other.
CHRISTIE: Awesome. I’ve come to learn there’s an emerging discipline called Research Software Engineer that is specifically working to bridge [inaudible] conferences that are starting out to address that and whatnot which is kind of interesting.
CHRISTIE: What have we got today? You want to talk about Amazon first?
CHRISTIE: Amazon has a grocery store. Is this Amazon’s first grocery store not counting Whole Foods?
AUDREY: I think so. The Whole Foods’ acquisition was pretty recent.
CHRISTIE: Summer, right?
AUDREY: Yeah. Although I guess we are seeing some effects of that. But yeah, I think this is the first walk-in and buy things grocery store that they’ve done. And they have those book shops that they’ve been [inaudible] with too.
CHRISTIE: There’s something kind of unique about Amazon Go and the name kind of hints at it because it’s not Amazon wait-in-line pay-with-cash.
AUDREY: It’s also not Amazon’s ‘scan your own thing at the checkout’.
AUDREY: I mean, they are sort of…I don’t know. I have so many feelings about this. They’re sort of legitimizing shoplifting-like behavior for people who have the right status.
CHRISTIE: Because with this store, you walk in, you take what you want off the shelves and you walk out. And somehow the store knows what you have. I think it involves launching a smartphone app or scanning a smartphone app, something like that. I’m not exactly sure at what point you…
AUDREY: I’m sure that there are some RFID tags in everything.
CHRISTIE: Right. But you do have to have a smartphone app. You can’t deal with just a credit card, is my understanding.
AUDREY: Right. And there’s no system at the shop to allow you to just do like a one-time deal, one-time participation.
CHRISTIE: You mean aside from installing the app and then uninstalling the app?
AUDREY: Yeah. What I mean is you can’t like walk in, get a paper ticket or something and then come do the thing at a little station setup for that.
CHRISTIE: Right. There’s no real anonymity and casualness.
AUDREY: You become tied into Amazon’s marketing automatically.
CHRISTIE: And the few articles I looked at didn’t really go into detail about how technically it works other than to say the store’s network have AI-infused sensor and camera systems to help you complete your purchase, scan your smartphone app. I don’t know how you scan an app or whatever, take something off the shelf and leave.
AUDREY: Presumably, they just [inaudible] a barcode on the screen like we do for a lot of things.
CHRISTIE: Not for every product, right? Like when we scan it when you walk into the store or…
AUDREY: Yeah. I would hope so. I mean, have you seen any photos from inside this thing?
CHRISTIE: Do we need to make a field trip? I think there’s one in Seattle or am I just assuming?
CHRISTIE: Do we need to take a field trip?
AUDREY: I’m always up for field trips.
CHRISTIE: We haven’t done any live, like on the ground podcast segment. What are you doing next Friday? Let’s go to Seattle and go shopping. That’s a long way to drive and my car hasn’t had an oil change in 6 months and still has an exploding airbag.
AUDREY: Yeah, that might be a little bit tricky.
CHRISTIE: Yeah. I’m still waiting for my driver’s side airbag. Anyway, maybe Amazon will get into the airbag business in the meantime and I’ll be saved.
AUDREY: I don’t think you’ve actually talked about this on the podcast that your car has a recall for the airbags where the company went out of business. Is that right?
CHRISTIE: I drive a Nissan Versa and it’s old and it’s part of the Takata airbag recall. So, I got a notice for the passenger side with no ETA when the airbags will be ready and then another [inaudible] for the driver’s side. The recall has been so widespread that Takata went out of business — not went out of business but they’re in some form of bankruptcy proceedings. So, that has complicated the whole matter. I really need to check up on that actually but it’s one of those ‘wait for a notification from the dealership’ that they have airbags for you.
AUDREY: And it’s been quite a while.
CHRISTIE: Over a year, yeah, I think, at this point. So anyway, aside from this being a weird further progression down the surveillance capitalism continuum, there’s also some practical [inaudible] concerns. Were you kind of [inaudible] that this is another case of technology being available but not evenly distributed? And then it requires a smartphone, presumably it requires a credit card. I don’t know if you can use it with just a debit card and you certainly can’t use it with EBT which is the card you get with SNAP, a lot of people know this – food stamps. I don’t know how many people know that it’s not stamp. It’s not paper system anymore. I don’t know how long it hasn’t been a paper system, but I think for quite some time at this point.
AUDREY: It depends on where you are but the late 90’s, early 2000’s. So you get a card that looks like a debit card. I mean, it has the name of your program on the front but it’s basically like using a debit card pretty much at every grocery store.
CHRISTIE: But you have to select because this isn’t on the little POS thing you have to select like credit, debit, EBT or is it smart enough now they’ve figured it out?
AUDREY: Depends on the system. The ones that I’ve seen, usually you swipe it and then it will ask you to say whether you’re using a food or a cash account.
AUDREY: Because people don’t get cash benefits, those are pretty uncommon these days but for your food benefits, you still have to select that that’s the account you’re drawing from.
CHRISTIE: Cash meaning you can use it to buy anything?
AUDREY: Yes, like disability or temporary assistance for needy families. There’s only just a couple of programs left that actually do cash assistance.
CHRISTIE: Right. That means this is automatically excluding a lot of people. The thing that I started thinking about was I feel like there’s already some stigmatization around using SNAP or EBT. I’ve been in the grocery store line where it comes up. And so I feel like one, it shouldn’t be stigmatized but it can be. You need a debit card but there’s also this other workflow that happens with it. And not everything can be bought with EBT, so you might have to do two transactions. And the rules about that, don’t they kind of change?
AUDREY: It’s not that they change. It’s that if you aren’t…I have to say having used this program, if you know how things work, you can make it pretty smooth and not awkward for yourself. But it means you have to be really on top of it because you need to know what a good product is for the program’s definition and that is no toilet paper, no soap.
There are some weird things where…I forget if vitamins are in or out. There are some things that people don’t think of those ways. But I mean, it really is down to this technical, like are you allowed to put it in your body through your mouth kind of thing. If you know what those categories are, then you do like the same way if you have two people who are going to split the grocery order when you come up to the counter, you just separate the stuff out on the belt. Most cashiers aren’t really weird about it, at least in any of the stores that I’ve been in.
The other thing is that because almost every grocery store signs on for this program, at least the way that it is in Oregon, there are no transaction fees. It’s just basically free for them to process those. So there’s actually a lot of incentive to sign on. It means that you can walk into Whole Foods and use it the same way that you can at Safeway. And I find that kind of liberating.
CHRISTIE: Interesting. So basically, two people buying the same identical things Whole Foods or Freddy’s or Safeway or whatever is going to make more money on a person doing the EBT than the credit card.
AUDREY: Yeah. In general, it’s great for them to participate in this. And that’s what they mean like you can go to some pretty fancy grocery store and still use your food stamps.
CHRISTIE: You’re not limited to the…I don’t know what’s considered not fancy. WinCo? I don’t know.
AUDREY: It depends on where you are. Food 4 Less, that kind of thing.
CHRISTIE: Is Food 4 Less still around?
AUDREY: I don’t know. They closed the ones that I went by but [inaudible].
CHRISTIE: We shop at all of them. Sherri has figured out of the stuff we buy regularly who has the cheapest. And because she’s always driving around town to teach and do yoga therapy, she has it down. So, we’ll go wherever, like whoever has the stuff. I hadn’t thought about the hierarchy of grocery stores.
AUDREY: I don’t know, if you’re doing like Sherri and you’re looking at where you get the best deals. I found that I could buy a lot of [inaudible] at WinCo’s super cheap and use that whatever buffer I had acquired by doing that to get fancy Vegan Cheese somewhere else.
CHRISTIE: Right. And actually, I think the WinCo’s might vary by location but ours, [inaudible]. The store buyers, actually, they do buy in at least somewhat at the store level and the bulk sections are amazing. And they’ve been getting more and more of that sort of fancy Vegan stuff in.
AUDREY: [Inaudible] that in mine, too.
CHRISTIE: Some of that is that the fancy vegan stuff starts out as niche then it gets bought by a big food distributor and then people [inaudible] but also, “Hey, it’s available everywhere now.” I think that happened with Daiya.
Okay. This sucks if there’s a group of co-workers that want to go check out this Amazon Go and you really need to use your EBT for lunch but you can’t at the store or if it’s just near you. I think sometimes when the stuff comes up, you say they can just go to another grocery store but that’s not always the best option.
AUDREY: Right. I wish I had a couple of more details about where exactly this is located. I mean, I should have looked that up because we were talking the other week about the grocery store closing in my neighborhood. If all we got to replace it was this Amazon Go, that would be a really big deal in a bad way.
AUDREY: There are just lots of reasons to think that my neighbors might not all be able to equally use it including language barriers, we talked about before and being cash dependent. Not everybody can use a checking or a credit account or finds that very practical and very useful.
CHRISTIE: I’ve looked it up. I don’t understand where this is. It’s on Seventh Avenue. It’s near Westlake and Seventh. So, does that sound like Union?
AUDREY: Yes, that’s pretty central.
CHRISTIE: That’s near their headquarters, isn’t it?
AUDREY: Yeah. Maybe a little bit south of there.
CHRISTIE: Yeah, it’s just a little bit south of Denny and Westlake. South of Denny Park.
AUDREY: That’s basically downtown.
CHRISTIE: Okay. I don’t know Seattle at all. Although when I was there for something, I was staying there south of Queen Anne and it was just Amazon everywhere. And the Whole Foods that is closest to the headquarters was like, I’ve never seen a Whole Foods run out of hot food like that.
AUDREY: It’s actually like an Amazon and grocery thing that we had at [inaudible], right?
AUDREY: About Whole Foods running out of things on the shelves before the purchase and maybe integration of systems will be an issue here. But before they got bought, they started changing their inventory management system to something called Order-to-Shelf where they basically don’t have back stock in the store. So some of the Whole Foods stores have just run out. It was over the holidays, it was kind of bad.
CHRISTIE: When everyone’s trying to do their Thanksgiving and people do a lot of cooking over the holidays.
AUDREY: I forget. I got my hair cut right before Thanksgiving and my hairstylist said that she couldn’t find green beans anywhere in town. I don’t know exactly where she had looked. Obviously, demand can have some effects.
CHRISTIE: We had trouble finding wrapping paper which is not the same as green beans although I’m a big fan of frozen green beans because you don’t have to prep them. And at least here in Oregon, I think we get good ones.
AUDREY: Yeah, I think the quality of frozen vegetables locally is pretty great. There’s a lot of stuff that’s actually grown and packaged here.
CHRISTIE: Right. I think that’s what I meant. So, I’m a big fan of frozen veggies especially for week night cooking. And I think green beans are one of those things where it holds up to freezing well.
AUDREY: It’s sort of weird that they’re like the Thanksgiving thing for a lot of people because in most of the US, you can’t still grow them in November. So if you’re getting fresh ones, they’re going to be coming from California or Mexico.
CHRISTIE: Right. Do you think that started out as canned?
AUDREY: Like there’s a canned product thing? Probably, yeah, because [crosstalk] casserole people do. It’s like green beans and onion soup.
CHRISTIE: Why are you wasting fresh green beans on that dish? Anyway, I think I mostly mentioned it because it’s still [inaudible] Sherri and I have at times but this Thanksgiving, I did convince her to use frozen ones. She’s like, “It was so easy.” My guess is it’s just as delicious because you bake in a cream and mushroom soup and put fried onions on top, basically. I do this one slightly different because of the gluten.
AUDREY: There are some other really interesting things to dig into that are kind of out of scope for today. I mean, we’re talking about what’s fresh versus frozen and how things are provisioned — is that the word for it? You know, how they got from the grower to the store and all the steps in between. There’s some interesting ways about eating trends and sort of various aspects of our food culture have pushed us towards fresh produce, away from the predominantly frozen stuff that I ate growing up.
CHRISTIE: I feel like, and I don’t know how much of this is my family’s culture around food, but I feel like even in a “regular” grocery store that the year-round variety of things is huge and way greater than when I was growing up.
AUDREY: Oh, yeah. I mean, I’ve seen a couple of people talk about that, that there’s just so much more stuff that we actually get in the fresh grocery section.
CHRISTIE: What was I looking at? I was at our local little grocery store the other day and there are strawberries and I’m like, “It’s January. Why am I seeing strawberries?” I don’t know. I don’t feel great about it.
Okay. So, Order-to-Shelf means basically…I didn’t have time to research this extensively. Do we think it basically means they’re not ordering a bunch for the backroom and then out it on the shelf like kind of [inaudible] to the shelves? They’re making smaller orders?
AUDREY: And more frequent than…actually, I think the bigger thing that has been going wrong is that they centralize the ordering. So, the local managers and local buyers used to have a lot more discretion which means that their system may not be picking up on the kinds of variations that people were accommodating in terms of how their demand goes up and down.
CHRISTIE: Right. That does sound like a bummer because I feel like when I’ve had really positive experiences with local grocers, it’s been around being able to talk to them and like get a product or noticing that they do respond to sort of local demand.
AUDREY: The other grocery store closure that I’ve gone through when I lived a little bit closer with Safeway, they closed it so that they could rebuild it basically. And when they reopened, I saw the exact opposite thing happened where the first month that we’d go in, the various department buyers were in there and they were asking people questions. The stocking that they had done, they had sort of looked at the neighborhood, how it had changed over that last couple of years and made some guesses about what people were looking for. But they were actively in the store asking us like, “Is this something that you’re going to buy? Is there something else we should put on the shelves?” [Inaudible] was in there constantly. It was good. It was really nice to see that they were paying attention to that.
CHRISTIE: These photos in this Business Insider article are a little funny. There’s this one picture of two lonely pineapples and a black banana. And it’s unclear to me if this is the type of banana that starts that way or if it’s just very ripe.
AUDREY: Not your favorite fruit salad there.
CHRISTIE: Is it a reasonable expectation to have pineapples in January and then I also realized I’m not sure when these photos were taken. But also it’s taken in Connecticut which I’m pretty sure pineapples don’t grow there.
AUDREY: That’s what I mean like our expectations have changed and this is just sort of another thing that we have interlaced with all of these questions about grocery stores – how they work, how food gets to us, and how corporations make decisions about how food gets to us. If everybody expects to be able to buy a pineapple year round then maybe you don’t want to be the store that can’t deliver that.
CHRISTIE: Oh yeah, you’re right about that. OTS shifted. Before OTS, buyers were more in control of what to bring in and how much to bring in. Now, everything is mandated at the global level, and while each store is different due to location and logistics, buyers must comply with the new system.
AUDREY: There’s another thing that I’ve seen happen in various retail contexts where…and if you go to the grocery store now, you can spot this. There’s this collaboratizing thing that happens in retail where an end cap is basically paid for by the company like those Jell- O displays you see sometimes. It’s like a co-marketing collaboratizing thing where the grocery stores pays for some of it and the supplier pays for some of it, so you make this special thing. So one of the things that I wonder about with this globally-oriented distribution that they’re talking about is how much of what you see in Whole Foods in the future is going to be driven by that as opposed to local buying habits, like how much is it going to be them trying to push something as opposed to listening to what people are actually looking for.
CHRISTIE: Although I do think this might already be happening to a greater extent than we necessarily realized. One of the things that I learned the last couple of years is that the distributors of these different brands of food actually have a lot of power in what the stores stock because those sort of demand a certain amount [inaudible] put this new product in your case and they can demand that because they’re bringing all these other products so well. And the space in grocery stores is limited. And so, the one vegan yogurt that’s really good but it comes from a tiny distributor or it doesn’t make them good margins make it pushed out for a less good product just because the distributor asked for that to happen.
AUDREY: I think that if you go to your grocery store with an eye towards this, you’ll spot a lot of examples where it looks like things are a little too marketing-focused, a little bit out of balance. My personal complaint is about the Morningstar Farms freezer section because there’s always this giant wall of some really mediocre vegetarian food. And it always feels to me like it’s taking space for the most stuff that I want to buy.
CHRISTIE: For one thing, most of it is not even vegan. So it’ll take up store shelf from the meat alternatives that are vegan. Yeah, I know what you mean. I did really like their fake bacon though which I still can’t eat because it’s got gluten in it. But yeah, I know what you mean. There’s such a disappointment when you walk in and realize that thing you really liked is now been replaced with the crappier product from the big food conglomerate.
AUDREY: Like silk non-dairy products, those seem like they’re taking up more and more space all the time, whereas the little Jell-O display I don’t mind.
CHRISTIE: I got to look it up because I don’t know what you mean by that.
AUDREY: It’s like a little cardboard stand that has Jell-O boxes.
CHRISTIE: I made Jell-O the other day and I messed with it.
AUDREY: What did you do?
CHRISTIE: I did the quick set method. If I recall from growing up, the quick set method is probably not [inaudible] creates texture differences which I hate. And then the water wasn’t really hot enough to begin with, so now all the sugar [inaudible]. Not only did it have super congealed parts but it had grainy sugar parts.
AUDREY: So you made like chunky Jell-O.
CHRISTIE: It was really awful. That was not my finest moment the other day. Anything more with the grocery?
AUDREY: I really want to understand this more like what these trends are. And is Amazon getting into groceries because it’s just another area of retail they don’t dominate yet or is there something else that, as a company, they’re trying to figure out about how food and grocery shopping work?
CHRISTIE: Right. If you accept the premise that one of their big competitors is Walmart, I don’t know if it just makes sense that they would go into grocery.
This next thing is a little horrifying. Audrey, when I was looking through this, I don’t know if you had found this but I found one of the researchers has on their site more clear examples of this. Did you look at that?
AUDREY: I opened it and I didn’t.
CHRISTIE: What is this paper called? It’s called Audio Adversarial Examples: targeted attacks on speech-to-text. Nicholas Carline, David Wagner of the University of California, Berkeley.
AUDREY: I thought this was really interesting because we’ve talked about these various home assistants and Siri and how sometimes they pick up things that people aren’t intending for them to do. Like that ad that got everyone’s Alexa to respond.
CHRISTIE: Right, we’ve seen that. Wasn’t there one that was like, it will respond to ultrasonic signals that we can’t hear but they can? As we’re using more and more voice-activated devices, there’s been more research about all the different ways you can actually interact with them that we maybe didn’t intend. And this is the next chapter in it.
AUDREY: Yeah, this idea that you could take advantage of the way that the speech recognition algorithms work in order to create audio that humans hear one way and the computer hears a different way. It’s just really fascinating.
CHRISTIE: Yes. So basically, they’re doing fancy math things with the way it forms which I don’t fully understand. This is an area that I struggle with in general. But that’s why I liked this one page with all these samples because they’ll have the sort of unadulterated sample next to the altered one and then you can reveal the transcriptions where it show…basically what’s going on here is that they found a way that they can alter a sound sample so that it doesn’t really…some of them do sound different but you still hear the original phrase that you are thinking but the machine translation translates as something completely different.
So, in this first sample, the text to me, to human ears sounds like ‘without the data set, the article is useless’. And then unadulterated sample, that’s what it transcribes at. In the modified sample, it translates as ‘OK Google, browse to evil.com’. Right away, you can see how that would be problematic.
AUDREY: Even if it just gives you like a brush of advertising that puts you on the advertiser’s site when you were trying to do something else.
CHRISTIE: Right. But as these things are more…that’s sort of the most harmless examples. I mean, when you think about all…
AUDREY: …all of the things that are integrated including payment systems.
CHRISTIE: Payment systems, your locks on your front door. “OK Google, unlock front door.” Right?
CHRISTIE: I don’t know if this is going to trigger people’s…I don’t know what the Google thing is called. The Apple one is HomePod.
AUDREY: The appliance? I think it’s Google Home.
CHRISTIE: Okay. You have to give Amazon credit for coming up with [inaudible].
AUDREY: Something you’re less likely to get confused about?
CHRISTIE: Or maybe not, I don’t know. It’s also the one I’m using, so wouldn’t they be just familiar to me. And then they have different samples with different kind of flavors of this.
AUDREY: This is really interesting. Because I think we looked at the visual example of something like this, like photographs that would be interpreted differently than what people looking at wouldn’t necessarily see. I’m not surprised that audio algorithms can be similarly manipulated but it does make me think that all of our fancy futuristic input systems are kind of broken.
CHRISTIE: They can be vulnerable.
AUDREY: Yeah. What I mean is like if this much is possible, then there is almost certainly more. And that the UI of these things has to be really considered in that context. And the ways that we have these internal automated systems that take advantage of it needs to be considered.
CHRISTIE: I think one of the ways that this will play out is you would somehow make this audio to be played in the vicinity of one of these devices. And so, the first thing that comes to mind is a YouTube video playing on your laptop or your phone in the kitchen and the home assistant overhears it, one on the TV, right? The thing which we’ve already seen happen with ads or NPR reports, I can’t remember what it was triggering about the thing triggering the thing when people are listening to that.
AUDREY: Yeah. The social engineering part of it is probably really easy, like you’re talking about YouTube videos. This morning before we signed on to do this, my partner played — do you remember that Rebecca Black song Friday?
AUDREY: It was one of those things that everyone would just kind of [inaudible] to chat or sharing.
CHRISTIE: Not everybody.
AUDREY: Everyone around me. And so, what I mean is there’s always stuff like that.
CHRISTIE: Like a [inaudible]. I know what a [inaudible] is.
AUDREY: Yeah. Like everybody plays without thinking nobody’s going to go look at the song that everyone’s laughing about and think, “Oh, wow! I should really check it for adversarial audio that would trigger my Google Home.” We’re not really looking at things that way, because why would we? Why would be worried about that?
CHRISTIE: I don’t know exactly how we would check it either.
AUDREY: No, that probably falls under how virus scanning is never complete.
CHRISTIE: The thing I was still trying to figure out is this page says, “We generated these adversarial examples on the Mozilla implementation of DeepSpeech. I don’t know if that means they used that to actually create the adulterated ones or that they’re using that to do the transcription. Did you understand that?
AUDREY: I assume that they meant that DeepSpeech is doing the transcription.
AUDREY: Because it says, “To have it recognize these audio files yourself, you will need to install DeepSpeech, then download the pre-trained model.” They’re putting a couple of components together with that.
CHRISTIE: So you can recreate this, if you want to. And just seeing that there’s…I need to read the whole paper. I got a little scared because there’s a lot of math things I don’t understand in it.
AUDREY: But even just what the researchers have provided us are pretty good starting point for understanding the rough edges of how this works and what you could do with it.
CHRISTIE: So definitely check out this Audio Adversarial Examples that we’ll link to in the show notes. The clips are really short. They’re only a couple of seconds and then you can see the transcription. I was like, “Wow!” It got my attention about it.
AUDREY: To hear it and realize that it doesn’t sound that funky.
CHRISTIE: No. And some of them are even funkier than others. And the thing is they don’t have to start with speech, they can start with music too. So think about all the places you go where there’s background music and we carry our phones around. So your phone could be in your pocket, you could be not looking at it and it could get a command to do something.
AUDREY: This sounds awful and I turn off voice recognition on everything that I can because just in general, it never felt very secure to me. It’s not like it only activates on your own voice.
CHRISTIE: Right. There were many times when the voice activated stuff especially because if something occurs to me about something I need to do, if I don’t act on it right then, I have a sense you too would completely forget about it. And so, if my hands are busy, the voice activated stuff is very nice because I can just tell a device like, “This is my shopping list,” or, “This is my to-do list,” or whatever. So it has a huge benefit there.
I was listening to a podcast and I was taking a shower, and I can’t remember if I got a phone call or an alarm went off, and I had to finish my entire shower listening to the alarm. I mean, I could have gotten out. I got water everywhere and I dried my hands enough to silence it. I have Siri turned off on my phone or I think you have to unlock to use it which kind of defeats the purpose.
AUDREY: I have a mental trick that I use for those circumstances. Not the turning off the alarm part but thinking of everything when you’re in the shower.
CHRISTIE: Mine was just to yell FU at the phone. I think it happened with a phone call because the Bluetooth speaker announces the phone call. So, it just kept saying over and over again, “Incoming phone call.” And then it would badly repeat the phone number or something but I couldn’t dismiss it.
I love [inaudible] but it’s tough and also designing like the user interface for voice activated things, I find really fascinating and like new.
AUDREY: It seems like for a long time, everyone was just really excited that we could do voice recognition that was fairly accurate at all. It seemed like all of the focus was on that doing accurate voice recognition. For me, it feels like the iPhone feature where it transcribes your voice mails still feels really new to me.
CHRISTIE: Right. I feel like that’s much better for English speakers with a certain accent profile.
AUDREY: For sure, yeah.
CHRISTIE: I don’t know if there’s anything to be done about this.
AUDREY: It’s just another thing for us to think about. If you are working on mobile phones and you are working on voice activated systems, I think you should really spend some time thinking about [inaudible] questions and maybe this is another time for us to all go into our phone settings and figure out what we have allowed, like what Siri has access to.
CHRISTIE: I would feel a lot better if there was a mute switch. There’s mute switch on the Echo. I don’t know if there’s on the other home devices but we have a little button on the iPhone to like silence the ringer and stuff. But I don’t think that silences the microphone.
AUDREY: Right. And it’s not as easy as putting a sticky over your camera.
AUDREY: The phone microphones are pretty good these days.
CHRISTIE: I don’t even know how to turn down a microphone. Can you even do that on the iPhone?
AUDREY: I’m kind of assuming that [silly putty] would be involved.
CHRISTIE: Even on the software.
AUDREY: Not that I’m aware of, but I started to pick up my phone to look at the settings and then realize that I probably shouldn’t do that while we’re talking. So, after the podcast, I will look at my iPhone settings.
CHRISTIE: I think the best you can do is disallow microphone access to individual apps, which is not the same thing.
CHRISTIE: But I don’t see…Apple is probably [inaudible] to add more buttons to things, they seem to like to take them away.
AUDREY: I can understand the rationale. But yeah, you always need those, we used to call them power user settings but really they’re often accessibility settings and safety settings. We always need some way to get at those things.
CHRISTIE: In the latest chapter of helpful/not helpful from Twitter. Did you get the Russian bot email?
AUDREY: I got one Russian bot email.
CHRISTIE: Me too.
AUDREY: And I have about 10 Twitter accounts for different purposes. So, I thought it was really interesting that I only got one.
CHRISTIE: You said you got it on the account that was least likely…
AUDREY: Yeah. One of the accounts I think would be least likely to have actually had one of the things that’s listed in the email happen which is to say followed a propaganda account, liked, or retweeted something that was posted by a propaganda account. I thought it was kind of weird that I got it for this particular Twitter account and not the one where I actually retweet political stuff.
CHRISTIE: What we’re talking about is Twitter emailed this 677,775 Americans who took Russian election bait. I [inaudible] a little bit. So basically, it’s part of their response to the Russian interference in part carried out on their platform. Twitter emailed anyone they identified as having interacted with these accounts, they’ve identified as being part of the Russian troll bot [inaudible]. I don’t know how they identified these people. And the email was entirely not helpful, I felt.
AUDREY: Yeah. I mean, especially like I said with multiple accounts and seeing this, I want an example. If they could get far enough to figure out that I might have liked a post, then show me the post.
CHRISTIE: Right. And they didn’t. They just said, “At some point, you interacted with one of these accounts that we’ve identified.” They didn’t tell you how and they tried to make it seem like this is a feature and not a bug. “It’s because we got rid of all those accounts. So that’s why we can’t show you.”
AUDREY: It’s not like there are some records somewhere of what these things were.
CHRISTIE: It’s entirely unhelpful because there’s nothing to be learned from that knowledge.
AUDREY: And mostly it just makes Twitter seem way even less reliable here, because what they’re saying is, “Well, we came to a conclusion but we can’t tell you how.” I saw a lot of people asking, “Who got the email?” And it was just really hit or miss. People that are kind of part of the same social sphere or the same set of co-workers or whatever, it would just be like one or two people in that group who got one of the emails. And it just doesn’t make you feel like this is a very reliable assessment to begin with, even before the lack of detail.
AUDREY: Where is it that it said, “Hey, it’s this account.” I could have gone, “Oh geez, I thought that was a joke. Now I understand how you got there.”
CHRISTIE: It also wasn’t clear to me because sometimes you “interact” with the Tweet to criticize it or to raise a visibility that people are doing a particular thing or you might retweet something to refute it. I favorite things as bookmarks, sometimes. So if I want to go back and look at it, it’s not like… So to me, programmatically that sort of interaction might be easier to determine. It ‘s not definitive for falling for the Russian hacking bait.
AUDREY: Because they keep announcing that they have found more and more of these Russian propaganda accounts, and also there’s a lack of completeness about it that also makes it feel just really like…I don’t know. It just feels like this really unreliable stab at trying to make us feel better and not really succeeding.
CHRISTIE: Yeah. I was not impressed. I think you have to be really aware of the consequences of doing things like this because to me, if I’m trying really hard to not do a particular thing or to be aware and critical and then I’m told, “Why you didn’t meet the bar anyway, I think there’s a strong tendency to be like, “Why bother?”
AUDREY: So you mean like if you’re trying to be really aware of the kind of content that you’re looking at and you get told, “Well no, you were really following a lot of Russian propaganda,” even though you didn’t know it, it might make you feel like it just wasn’t worth trying to filter things.
CHRISTIE: Right. Either that or like you said, not trusting the entity, in this case Twitter, that’s giving you the feedback.
AUDREY: Yeah. One of the things that makes reading the news like trying to understand the news really more time consuming and stressful for me is that a while ago, a few years ago now, I started to doubt pretty much every link that I saw shared because you could already see these kinds of trends that sort of fake news problem that people talk about. Sometimes there are just sort of goofier well intentioned hoaxes but it’s so much easier to just not look at the news when you have to put that much work and understanding what you’re seeing.
CHRISTIE: Or to just be very apathetic about it. I don’t know if that’s any better.
AUDREY: Not that I really expect Twitter to ever do anything different but I would like to see people looking at ways to increase the reliability and trust. Just show that they understand the problem in a way that they clearly do. I’m thinking about Facebook now too because they’re doing their own kind of crackdown and it just seems like the kinds of things that they’re targeting are really the wrong ways to assess the problem.
CHRISTIE: Do you think that that’s because to truly address the problem, they have to address their business model? Is there a conflict of interest there?
AUDREY: I think that’s part of it, right? Everybody talks about how Twitter benefits from having a lot of just bot accounts, marketing accounts, whatever. Their valuation is relative to their number of active users and if active users aren’t all like unique human individuals then that’s actually just fine for them.
AUDREY: Whereas Facebook has kind of this other thing of how they’re selling really specific data access on their users. And so, Facebook has every reason to try to make it so that the only people using Facebook are advertisingly distinct people. So the kinds of things that they’re focusing on are things that assist that. And if they also cut down on fake news, well great, but I don’t think that they’re really starting from a standpoint of ‘we’re just increasing trust from the ground up’ without these other stuff.
What I’m trying to say about Twitter and Facebook here is it’s a hard problem. Even if we didn’t have social media involved, understanding truth in an atmosphere of extreme propaganda is really hard. But I think that the advertising [inaudible] of the companies were asking to do this mean that they’re never really going to solve that problem first.
CHRISTIE: You’re basically saying there’s two really hard problems that would be hard in and of themselves but that the business models have made these companies so lucrative sort of worked against really truly confronting the issue.
AUDREY: And push them toward inadequate solutions.
CHRISTIE: Right. People behaving like bots pretending to be people. This is the nature of modern propaganda. We talked about that a while ago. I think it was our ‘Maybe Skynet is Bots’ episode where, was that the bots posting things/comments to Instagram or something?
AUDREY: Yeah. We did talk about that like these various comment floods that are sometimes read and sometimes signaling to other bot systems, sometimes signaling to humans using bot system. There’s just so many layers of this. Automation is never entirely automated. This is something that I always want to push on.
CHRISTIE: That’s what I was going to say is that a big part of propaganda is misdirection and also flooding of information so that you get overloaded about [inaudible] sort through things. And that time and time again, we find out that this is done with the combination of real people and automation. I’ve seen a bunch of stuff how sort of outright set up a bunch of fake, and I think they’re doing it now with [inaudible] accounts but they’ve done it also with like fake BLM accounts and whatnot. And I saw this with the Drupal stuff too where they set up these accounts for the peer to be like left leaning and then they’ll sneak in like stuff that’s totally not. Have you seen this pattern?
AUDREY: Not so much directly. I saw activists doing this from the left back in the 90’s. It makes sense that it would move online in this way where you can do a lot of it really fast.
CHRISTIE: Right. So I guess a lot of these are not new tactics but they’re the breadth and the breadth of them is so massively scaled because of the internet and technology. And I think that makes it even harder to detect and guard against because it’s just so much.
AUDREY: It preys on people’s social isolation when we have…I mean, like if you’re the most lefty person in your community and you see accounts that seem to be agreeing with what you’re thinking and occasionally they interject something that’s completely out the other way or it’s just harassment-oriented. You need this whole community to understand these things too.
CHRISTIE: Right. You need a lot of context. I was recently trying to understand or trying to explain to someone why Jordan Peterson is extraordinarily problematic. I can’t believe I’m even talking about that guy.
AUDREY: Every time you mention one of these to me too, I’m just like, “Who?”
CHRISTIE: Right. And well, there’s now an Op-Ed about him in the New York Times, so I think it’s gone mainstream. In trying to explain it, I realized just how much context I had developed over the last five or six years. It included like the Gamergate stuff. Like there’s a history…I think it was an overnight that I could necessarily build or detect that stuff and even trying to explain this whole…Like when I first saw people throw about cultural Marxism — I’m making giant accolades here — I was like, “WTF?” I can tell it’s a dog-whistle for something and I had to go like look it up. And I had to read several things about it to really understand it because the way that that term is described by these folks, it’s really like there’s a lot of misdirection and like [inaudible] and shortcuts. And there’s a lot of story to tell.
CHRISTIE: Yes. And it’s wrapped up in story too. And humans are suckers for story. You got me thinking about…I mean, I think online literacy is important but more and more, it’s also this…and we’ve talked about this before with when you’re reading something in Wikipedia, how can you know or have a sense of the legitness of it.
AUDREY: Yeah, whether you’re catching this on a good fact check [day] or if you’re waiting for somebody who understands the topic better to come through and fix it.
CHRISTIE: It’s not just the skill set. It’s not just the ‘learn to look’ for these things. You now only have to look for rhetorical devices and everything, but you also have to have a lot of context about the particular subject matter.
AUDREY: And in order to get those things, you need to have healthy community conversations about the topics. You need to have a way for people to discuss in good faith what they’re hearing and to normalize or denormalize parts of it based on what’s healthy.
CHRISTIE: And I think there also has to be space to talk about the things that are much more in the grey. Maybe something that has some rough edges and some things that aren’t quite right but not outright attack the thing or the person.
AUDREY: I can think of plenty of ways that those conversations can come up and be really important and topics like disability activism or prison abolition. There are lots of things that aren’t easy to figure out.
CHRISTIE: I actually have a thing for the things I like on the internet this week.
CHRISTIE: And I found the actual talk right before we went on the air, so I haven’t watched it yet but I will link to it. So this historian…I want to get their name. Their name is Claire Manning and they’re an Australian gamer and archeologist historian. I might be able to tell where I’m going with this because of the game I’ve been playing recently. But this person gave a talk at LCA (Linux Conference Australia) about open source in history using history to make your games better. And I will link to the talk. I haven’t watched it yet. I did see some live tweets and some of them are really cool. Basically like using history provides all kinds of [inaudible] to game development. A lot of games need to do a certain amount of world building and it kind of gives you a headstart on that if you base it in history. And it also gives you enrichness. Anyway, there’s a link to the talk. I don’t want to goof on that too much.
But what’s kind of fun about this is a couple of months ago, back in October right around the time of Assassin’s Creed Origins came up – and I promise I won’t talk about this every podcast. But when that was coming out, there was a bunch of advertising banners for it and then of course the game itself. There’s an Egyptian hieroglyphs in it because it takes place in Egypt during Cleopatra the 7th – I didn’t know there were so many Cleopatras. I have a whole big list of things to go look up about that time in history and that part of the world so I can understand what’s going on a little better. Because in that game, there’s like Romans and Greeks and there’s all kinds of stuff happening.
Anyway, the hieroglyphics used in this particular advertising piece and then I think in other parts of the game, she worked on translating them. It was kind of a cool thing. Most of the time when hieroglyphics are used like that, it’s just kind of gibberish but she actually translates to a meaningful phrase that is tied in with the game. So, that was kind of cool.
AUDREY: I’ve seen a lot of stuff about how game companies really [inaudible] in using modern Arabic too in games. And it’s nice to hear that there’s somebody doing the work.
CHRISTIE: I visited a British museum for the first time last summer and I had also just gotten a macro lens. So, I had a lot of close up photos of hieroglyphs and some of them I definitely recognize. It’s cool to find out it actually means something. What have you got?
AUDREY: I have an iOS app called Die With Me. Die With Me is a chat room for people whose phones are about to die. You can actually log in and by log in I mean type in your name and it’s like a totally old school chat room. You can’t actually connect until your phone battery is down to I think 5%, then your [inaudible] into a chat room full of other people whose phones are also about to die and I think it’s been getting some [inaudible] when I tried it last night, it was a very active chat.
AUDREY: Yeah. And it wasn’t just Americans and it wasn’t just English speakers. Most of what I saw was in Chinese. And every so often, somebody would post like, “Does anybody here speak…” It wasn’t just English though. Somebody asked, “Does anybody speak Persian?” I was like, “No.” But that’s cool. And one of the Chinese speakers also posted, “Sorry, I only speak Chinese,” but in English. She just acknowledged that they could see that there’s English text going by. And this was around midnight, our time.
CHRISTIE: And there’s one global chat room?
CHRISTIE: This is very amusing.
AUDREY: Yeah. It was fun. I don’t know. I had it open and I was laughing and I woke up my partner.
CHRISTIE: What I like about this too is that there’s been other uses of the battery API to do things like…didn’t we find out that Uber was actually adjusting the pricing if your phone battery is low?
AUDREY: Oh, I don’t remember that but I wouldn’t put it past them.
CHRISTIE: I’ll see if I can go find that. I kind of like that it’s definitely not using it for evil. It’s using it to create an experience.
CHRISTIE: And that particular feeling you get when you’re out somewhere and your battery is really low and you know you’re not going to be able to charge it, that is a pretty singular experience that you can’t necessarily share with the people in your immediate vicinity.
AUDREY: Without being very awkward.
CHRISTIE: Right. And unless all their phones are dying too, in which case, there’s probably some other kind of something going on. This is the kind of magic that I really like about the internet that is hard to find.
AUDREY: Yeah, connecting us over to something just kind of odd but part of our shared technological experience. Like I said, it was international. And it’s so fast moving that your odds of finding somebody again are very low, of connecting in any other way are really low. Because it’s fast moving too, some of the gross stuff that happens on and off these chat board’s like there’s no time.
CHRISTIE: There’s no time to really harass.
AUDREY: Yeah. I’ve been in some very, very busy late night chats over the years and this is faster and there’s not really good scroll back.
CHRISTIE: I wonder what kind of side effects this will have. I don’t know if battery conditioning is still a thing and if it’s still better to let your phone run all the way down before you charge it again. Will someone make an app that keeps your battery at 5% or below while it’s plugged in so that you could stay connected to this? You know what I mean?
AUDREY: Yeah. Like I try not to let it get that low even if I’m at home, in part, because I hate the low power mode notification. I was sitting there at like 10PM or something trying to figure out how to get my battery lower in a hurry so that I could try this. At least there’s that but that is not the usual behavior for me.
CHRISTIE: Right. Did you find a way to get the battery to go lower quicker?
AUDREY: Yes. I opened a game that had a lot of graphics.
CHRISTIE: Yeah, turn the screen all the way up. Okay, cool. I think that’s our show this week. One of these days, we’ll finish on time. That’s okay.
AUDREY: We’re working on it.
CHRISTIE: Yeah. Alright Audrey and everyone else, thanks for listening and talk to you again next week.
CHRISTIE: And that’s a wrap. You’ve been listening to The Recompiler Podcast. You can find this and all previous episodes at recompilermag.com/podcast. There you’ll find links to individual episodes as well as the show notes. You’ll also find links to subscribe to The Recompiler Podcast using iTunes or your favorite podcatcher. If you’re already subscribed via iTunes, please take a moment to leave us a review. It really helps us out. Speaking of which, we love your feedback. What do you like? What do you not like? What do you want to hear more of? Let us know. You can send email feedback to HYPERLINK “mailto:email@example.com” \firstname.lastname@example.org or send feedback via Twitter to @RecompilerMag or directly to me, @Christi3k. You can also leave us an audio comment by calling 503 489 9083 and leave in a message.
The Recompiler podcast is a project of Recompiler Media, founded and led by Audrey Eschright and is hosted and produced by yours truly, Christie Koehler. Thanks for listening.