Project Alias

A parasite add-on to smart home assistants for increased user privacy and agency

Project Alias is a physical add-on, a parasite, for smart home assistants such as Amazon Echo or Google Assistant. The 3D-printed shell sits on top of the speaker device, containing a microphone, a raspberry pi (a small computer), and speakers that are positioned directly over the microphone of the smart speakers. The parasite consistently plays a low noise blocking the microphones of the smart device. When the user says the custom wake word for the Alias, the noise stops and instead plays a recording of the original wake word at a very low volume so the assistant can be controlled as usual.

This means that the trustworthy, local system on the raspberry pi takes over the task of listening and only activates the assistant when necessary. This prevents data-hungry tech companies from mining the user's personal life for their commercial interests. The project is distributed as a set of DIY instructions featuring the 3D printing files of the shell, hardware components necessary to build the electronics, and the code for the Raspberry Pi.

The two Danish designers Bjørn Karmann and Tore Knudsen developed Project Alias as a side project over several months in 2019. After the initial release that gathered a lot of media attention and was awarded the S-T-ARTS prize for artistic exploration at ARS Electronica, they published a second version in 2020. This included an improved listening set-up, the option to teach Alias custom commands and the feature where users could mix up the language and tone of voice Alias would issue commands in, further obfuscating any personal data the smart home assistant was gathering about the user. In this way, the parasite device increases not only the privacy of the user but also their agency over the language used within their home.

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