The most recent fashionable item to own in Western households is a digital cylinder that understand your requests and carries them out. These are known as a voice-command devices. Amazon’s Echo was the trailblazer in this field but Apple have caught up with their Alexa device. These devices, with their ability to listen to users, understand their speech, process their requests, reply and carry out such digital tasks, are being viewed as a boon to a busy household. Unfortunately, few people seem to be talking about the big potential problems that are inherent in these devices. The danger of these devices can be explained in several steps.

Step 1: Your device is hacked

Any electronic device can be hacked into. This is a basic fact. The reason all modern computer devices are so vulnerable is because they are so complicated that there are bound to be holes in their operation systems. There are also, now, many many ways for someone to communicate with a modern device, through wireless, near-infrared, bluetooth and 4G. Manufacturers do their best to make their devices as easy-to-use and accessible as possible. This inevitably produces a multitude of ways to hack into them. Security and ease-of-use are diametrically opposed to each other. I say this as a Computer Science degree graduate, so I have a good knowledge of the subject. Because of this, virtually every device is hackable. Sadly for us, it isn’t just criminals who take advantage of this fact. Major governments are eavesdropping on their citizens, either partly or completely, all the time. Decades ago, such an idea was believed to be a paranoid conspiracy… and then Edward Snowden turned up and told everyone it was true, because he’d seen it being done while he worked for the NSA. The establishment’s response to this news was informative; it rapidly switched from ‘that’s a ridiculous lie peddled by paranoid losers’ to ‘it’s necessary to combat terrorism’. The whole subject was then dropped by the media as if it had never happened. The topic had somehow morphed overnight from a ludicrous conspiracy theory to a necessary deception, maintained to protect people, and that it was something we should just forget about.

In the above youtube video, which I found on the interesting website, VICE host Shane Smith interviews Edward Snowden. Snowden talks about what can be done to stop someone hacking your smartphone and recording everything you do. The data they can gather includes not just what you say and where you go, but detailed information about you as a person, even to the extent of recording your heartbeat and other health signs. Snowden gives some very interesting advice on this matter, along with comments on the broader matter of civil liberties. He makes it clear that if your smartphone is hacked, you’ll have a very hard time discovering the fact. To be honest, if you are concerned about being snooped on, the only safe smartphone is no smartphone. If you want to be sure that you’re not being eavesdropped-on, or tracked, then your only alternative is to use random pay-phones. Alternatively, you can use old phones that are barely sufficient for calls and messages, as it’ll be harder for snoopers to install useful eavesdropping software. These are the only safe-ish options.

When it comes to laptops, it’s also very difficult to spot hacking and eavesdropping but there are ways to check if it’s occurring. If you’re connected to the internet via a router or switch, watch the packet activity light on the router. If it’s chattering away when you’ve turned everything off to do with the internet, something funny is going on. Unplug the power to the laptop and work from its battery. If the battery is going down surprisingly quickly when all you’re doing is typing an article, it’s possible the laptop is sending information about you wirelessly while hiding that fact from your desktop status icons. (Clandestine groups may have hacked your laptop but they still need power to run their apps). Shut your laptop down when you’re not using it; this shortens the time available to secret groups to hack your computer. You can also check your system logs to see if your computer was booted up when you weren’t around. Turn on your firewall and turn off bluetooth, if possible. These acts don’t guarantee that you won’t be hacked (far from it!) but they do make it harder for anyone who’s trying. Ultimately, assume that everything you put on your laptop or smartphone will be monitored. If you end up in a situation where you do need to hide information, store it in your head and pass it on verbally by whispering into someone’s ear in a nightclub; that should be relatively safe.

Returning to the issue of state-hacking, a lot of people respond to Snowden’s revelations with ‘I don’t care if they’re watching us, I’ve got nothing to hide!’ For those people, I would say; ‘you have nothing to hide from moral leaders but what if there was a coup in your country? Or amoral liars fooled the electorate and gained power? You would then be ruled by amoral despots. You might then find that you want to defy the government and its dark policies. At that point, you will have someone you want to hide from them; your moral agenda.’ Snowden calls this problem ‘turnkey tyranny’ and he’s right. For anyone not concerned about this threat, I’d check out the latest news.

Step 2: You take the device to bed

The second stage in the ominous process of sleep-hacking is that whoever is controlling your hacked device uses it to perform various stages of hypnosis on you. Hypnosis is a powerful tool for influencing someone, or entirely controlling them. Normally, we think of hypnosis as something being done to someone who is awake, with their consent. This approach does happen; it has been the mainstay of many entertainers’ careers. This mutual-consent hypnosis can also be used to help someone, by enabling them to talk about events that happened to them that they are unable to consciously recall. That is all good, but there is another way to hypnotise or at least influence someone; by talking to them when they are asleep. This method of human programming is actually available as a learning tool. For example, you go to bed, turn on a cassette or computer player, fall asleep and the device plays an educational tape or file about your chosen subject. You take this information in, subconsciously, while you’re sleeping. You wake up in the morning, fresh as a daisy, and with greater knowledge of that subject.

The dark, flip-side of sleep-education is that if someone hacked your device, they could play an entirely different sort of audio instruction while you’re sleeping. Their message could tell you, over and over again, every night for hours, that you should buy something, or vote for someone, or hate someone, or perform an action in response to a trigger phrase. In other words, those messages would programme you without your conscious knowledge. You’d wake up in the morning, just as with the sleep-learning tape, and have no conscious idea of what had been going on in the night. Nevertheless, you’d be another step closer to being their puppet.

It’s worth remembering that if your phone was hacked, then the device could play these messages even if it appeared to have been turned off. This is because the only way to be sure that a smartphone is off is to pull out its battery. The playing of the instructions would also occur after your smartphone analysed your breathing patterns, the sound of your movements in bed and then calculated when you were at your most receptive to suggestion. It could then speak to you in whatever voice it knew was most influential to you, from its voice-assistant’s library, based on information gathered about you from your social-media history. This entire process could run automatically, following a complex and sophisticated algorithm. The programme could also monitor if anyone else in earshot, or if you wake up, or if someone else entered the room. If that happened, the programme could immediately go quiet until the visitor has gone and wait for you to return to slumber. This process could go on, night after night, for months or even years.

Ominous evidence that this could happen comes from a website article that reported on several users of Apple’s Alexa device reporting that their devices had been talking in the night without any prompting by their users. What’s more, the users reported that the devices had not logged the fact that they had been talking. Clearly, there can be several perfectly reasonable explanations for this occurrence, but it does fit with the described scenario.

Step 3: Whisper volume

After reading the first two steps of this article, some alarmed readers might decide unplug their smartphones, smart-televisions, Alexas or Echos at night, to prevent this problem ever occurring, if such a thing can occur. Unfortunately, this would not leave you free of possible influence. There is another form of audio hypnotism that can occur while a user is awake. One method of self-improvement through audio playback is to play back statements while the subject is awake, but at a volume that is too low for the subject to consciously notice. This is known as ‘whisper volume’. The subject can’t consciously hear it, but the sound is nevertheless loud enough for the subject to subconsciously pick up the message. This method is explained in this website. Once again, such a method can be used for a dark purpose. A hacker can influence a human target through a hacked device, by talking to them in ‘whisper mode’ even when the person is awake, without the subject even being consciously aware of what is going on.

Is this happening?

It’s almost impossible to prove that such dark actions are going on. If we’re lucky, they aren’t. Our devices’ security checks, our technology corporations and our governments are stopping such things happening. We also have laws that forbid such digital-hypnosis methods being used on the general public. An optimistic would therefore assume that we’re fine.

The problem with such a rosy view is that modern technology has made it extremely easy for any sufficiently skilled and resourced person to perform mass hypnosis and the mass-psychological programming of people. A single hacker, with enough programming time and the right codes, could insert code in hundreds of thousands of devices and thereby set up an automated system of mass mind-control. He or she could then programme these ‘zombie devices’ to send out hypnotic messages to their owners, tailored to each user, using their social networking history. This user-programming could take place during the day, using ‘whisper mode’ or at night-time, when the user is asleep, following a ‘sleep-control’ plan. Once this programme was developed and distributed to the hacked devices, using back-doors entry into those systems, the hacker could sit back and sip a coffee while his or her entire target nation of people unwittingly became his or her psychological victims. The users would not see or hear any sign at all of anything amiss.

It’s a very disturbing idea. It would make a great thriller if it wasn’t so scary.