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Burger King stunt a security wake-up call for voice assistants

A TV advertisement for the restaurant chain activated Google Home speakers, highlighting how easy it is to hijack such devices and a need to develop better security.

NEW YORK — Burger King pulled a pretty juicy marketing stunt last month that drew plenty of attention — not just to the Whopper, but also to the intrinsic vulnerabilities of a new type of voice-activated gadget.

The fast-food chain’s 15-second television ad targeted Google Home, a speaker that can answer questions and control other smart appliances. When an actor in the ad said “OK, Google” and asked a question about the Whopper, Google Home obediently began reading from a Wikipedia entry listing the burger’s ingredients in homes around the country — effectively extending the commercial for however long it took someone to shout, “OK, Google, stop!”

Google and Wikipedia quickly made fixes to shut it down. Though annoying, the stunt may have done some good by highlighting how easy it is to hijack such devices. (Just imagine a burglar spying a voice assistant and asking it to unlock all the doors.) It could also speed the development of home voice assistants with better security.

“It’s a wake-up call,” said Earl Perkins, a digital-security analyst at the research firm Gartner. “It’s a harbinger of things to come.”

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Voice assistants such as Google Home, Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Echo devices have always been susceptible to accidental hijack. A Google ad during the Super Bowl that used the phrase “OK, Google” reportedly set off people’s devices. And in a January story that briefly turned a family into media celebrities, a woman’s 6-year-old daughter ordered a dollhouse and sugar cookies simply by asking Amazon’s voice assistant Alexa for them.

Since the devices are so new — the Amazon Echo debuted in 2015, Google Home last year — they’re still…

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