Alexa, Who Am I Speaking To? Understanding Users' Ability to Identify Third-Party Apps on Amazon Alexa

10/30/2019 ∙ by David J. Major, et al. ∙ 0

Many Internet of Things (IoT) devices have voice user interfaces (VUIs). One of the most popular VUIs is Amazon's Alexa, which supports more than 47,000 third-party applications ("skills"). We study how Alexa's integration of these skills may confuse users. Our survey of 237 participants found that users do not understand that skills are often operated by third parties, that they often confuse third-party skills with native Alexa functions, and that they are unaware of the functions that the native Alexa system supports. Surprisingly, users who interact with Alexa more frequently are more likely to conclude that a third-party skill is native Alexa functionality. The potential for misunderstanding creates new security and privacy risks: attackers can develop third-party skills that operate without users' knowledge or masquerade as native Alexa functions. To mitigate this threat, we make design recommendations to help users distinguish native and third-party skills.



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1. Introduction

Voice User Interfaces (VUIs) are a common way to interact with an increasing number of smart-home Internet of Things (IoT) devices. On Amazon Echo (and related devices, such as the Echo Dot), the most popular type of voice assistant (amazon-echo, 2018), a VUI known as the Alexa voice service (“Alexa”) enables users to use only voice to interact with the device’s wide range of functions. These so-called skills (analogous to applications or “apps” on mobile devices) range from setting an alarm clock, telling jokes, to sending money. Although some of the skills ship with Alexa by default, native to the Alexa platform, there are more than 47,000 skills that are developed by third parties, which users can invoke to add new functions to their Echo devices (alexa-skills-store, 2019). Amazon has made certain decisions concerning the integration of these skills that sometimes make it difficult to determine the agent responsible for implementing the skill (i.e., whether it is Amazon or some other third party).

In this paper, we seek to understand the extent to which these design decisions make it difficult for users to determine whether they are interacting with native Amazon functionality or with arbitrary third parties. To do so, we conducted a survey between March and May 2019 with 237 new and existing users of Alexa, including 103 undergraduates, and 134 Amazon Mechanical Turk workers. Most participants were unaware that Alexa skills can be (and often are) developed by third-party developers. Our work is distinct from previous work on VUIs in this regard, which has focused more generally on how users interact with VUIs (Gao et al., 2018; Lopatovska and Williams, 2018; Purington et al., 2017; Porcheron et al., 2018; Sciuto et al., 2018; Moorthy and Vu, 2015), but not specifically on their interactions with third-party skills, or their ability to distinguish third-party skills from native ones.

In each survey, we present each participant with video and audio clips of interactions with three types of skills in the lab—(1) Alexa’s native skills, (2) publicly available third-party skills, and (3) malicious skills that we developed and which are not publicly available—without revealing to the participant which exactly which type of skill is being presented. The participants’ reactions to these clips suggest that, even after learning that some Alexa skills are developed by third parties, the participants were often unable to differentiate between native and third-party skills or between native skills and malicious third-party skills, and that the participants did not understand what functionalities are possible through native or third-party skills.

We discovered that Alexa users are unable to differentiate native skills from third-party skills. Much to our surprise, we found that users who have more familiarity and experience with Alexa are in fact more likely to mistakenly assume that a third-party skill is in fact native Amazon functionality. We also found that some participants were unaware that skills could be developed by third parties, that most participants failed to distinguish native and third-party skills and voice messages, and that they often did not understand what functions or voice commands were available on Alexa. As a result, a user may confuse a skill, whether malicious or benign, with a native skill or another benign skill, thus potentially exposing sensitive information to an unintended third party.

Our findings suggest that participants’ misunderstandings of Alexa skills are rooted in two design decisions that run counter to Norman’s design principles (Norman, 2013). First, Alexa’s responses from native functions sound the same as third-party skills. Presumably this design decision was made to create a seamless user experience, but it can also cause confusion concerning whether the skill is native to the Echo or whether the skill constitutes a third-party application. In contrast to graphical user interfaces (GUIs) on computers and mobile devices, which typically offer visual cues that aim to help users distinguish between applications, VUIs can have more difficulty providing direct cues to users. For example, the Echo has a colored light that indicates the state of the device, but it does not offer any information concerning the skill the user is interacting with (alexa-light-ring, 2019). As such, a user may not be aware of whether he or she is interacting with a native skill or third-party skill, or specifically which third-party skill has been invoked. This confusion could ultimately lead to security and privacy risks. For example, past research has shown that a malicious third-party developer could develop a new skill that mimics the behavior of an existing benign skill in an attempt to trick users into revealing sensitive information (Kumar et al., 2018a; Zhang et al., 2018).

Second, Alexa has effectively infinite voice commands, which makes it difficult for users to understand what and how different skills being invoked and what voice command might potentially invoke a skill. In particular, a user could invoke the same skill with different commands; for example, “set an alarm at 8 am” and “wake me up at 8 am” achieve the same functionality on Alexa. Each of the 47,000 third-party skills may define arbitrary voice commands. For example, there are at least 200 joke-related skills (alexa-skills-games, 2019), each with its own voice commands, ranging from “Open knock knock” (knock, 2019) to “Ask daily jokes to give me a joke (daily-jokes, 2019).” Because a typical user is unlikely to known or remember all available commands, users can find it difficult to know what functionality is and is not supported by Alexa. The inability to distinguish native and third-party skills has potential security and privacy implications: A malicious third-party developer could take advantage of this design, create a skill that responds to user commands that might otherwise be unrecognizable by Alexa, and trick the user into using the malicious skill.

These findings suggest clear directions for design improvements, including better ways to users to distinguish native from third-party contexts, as well as consistent design standards and interaction modes for third-party skills that run on the Alexa platform.

2. Background: Alexa Skills

Recent years have seen a proliferation of voice-enabled IoT devices, ranging from phones, voice assistants, microwaves, to car navigation systems. This paper focuses on one specific type of voice-enabled device can host third-party applications. In this sector, Amazon is the dominant player with 61% market share across its Alexa-enabled Echo devices (Google has the second highest with 17%) (amazon-echo, 2018). To further spread Alexa, Amazon has built the Alexa Voice Service which can configure other smart devices (not made by Amazon) to run Alexa software (alexa-voice-service, 2019). Thus, Alexa can be seen as the clear leader in the field and a useful case study for understanding how users interact with VUIs for virtual assistants. We provide an overview of Alexa’s skill ecosystem and a description on how users invoke and interact with skills.

2.1. Native and Third-Party

Alexa supports two types of skills: (1) native skills and (2) third-party skills. Native skills come built-in by Amazon and thus only involve code and dialog developed by Amazon. For example, users can ask for the time, set an alarm, or play music from Amazon Music. As Amazon is the sole developer for these skills, we assume that all information collected from users flows only to Amazon.

To support a broader range of functions, Amazon allows third-party developers to build skills for Alexa using the Alexa Skills Kit. Using the skills kit, developers can configure Alexa to communicate with their own services, create custom Alexa responses, and run custom code on their own servers (host, 2019). Third-party developers have built at least 47,000 skills, including a wide variety of functions such as playing podcasts, locking doors, checking credit card balances, and telling jokes, that are publicly available on the Amazon Skill Store (alexa-skills-store, 2019). Since the code of these skills could be on third-party servers, we assume that some of the information collected from users may flow to the third-party developers (in addition to Amazon).

2.2. Invoking Skills

Whether a skill is native or third-party, a user can invoke (i.e., verbally enable) it by saying the corresponding invocation phrases. These phrases follow the form of “Open ¡invocation name¿ for ¡optional action¿” where the invocation name is often the name of the skill. Examples include “Alexa, open Jeopardy” (i.e., a game shown in the US) and “Alexa, ask Daily Horoscopes about Taurus.”

However, Alexa allows some flexibility in invoking skills. For some native skills such as the alarm clock, a user can invoke it via either “Alexa, set an alarm for 8 am” or “Alexa, wake me up at 8 am.” For third-party skills, users replace “Open” with one of 13 words such as “play”, “open”, and “launch”. If none of these phrases are present, Alexa automatically parses the user’s statement for an invocation name and responds with the corresponding skill (understanding, 2019). However, invocation names do not appear to be unique, as we have found skills with the same invocation names. It is unclear how Alexa chooses which skill to invoke given two skills with the same invocation name.

2.3. Interacting with Skills

Once a user invokes a skill, Alexa enters what we call the skill’s context. At the time of writing, Alexa does not visually (through the device lights) or verbally confirm which context a user is in; in fact, Alexa’s voice sounds exactly the same. Once Alexa is in a skill’s context, Alexa accepts only voice commands predefined by that skill, along with phrases such as “cancel” or “quit” that allow users to leave the skill’s context and invoke a different skill. A user cannot invoke a second skill until the user leaves the first skill’s context.

3. Related Work

In this section, we provide a literature review of VUIs, focusing on how to design VUIs, how humans interact with VUIs, and security/privacy concerns regarding VUIs.

3.1. Designing Voice User Interfaces

Design patterns for graphical user interfaces are a well-established field (Laurel and Mountford, 1990), but paradigms for VUI design are scarce to our knowledge, presumably because voice assistants and other voice-enabled technologies have only taken off in recent years. One example of literature in VUI designs is Cathy Pearl’s Designing Voice User Interfaces: Principles of Conversational Experiences (Pearl, 2016), which covers design principles such as always confirming users’ voice input or handling ambiguous voice commands. However, the authors assumes that only the first party (i.e., the device manufacturer) engages in conversation with users without considering third-party capabilities such as skills. Similarly, López et al. (López et al., 2018) evaluated the usability of popular VUIs such as Alexa and Apple Siri in terms of correctness of responses and how natural the responses sound; again, this work did not consider third-party functionalities. In fact, we are unaware of any literature in VUI design that incorporates skills, and we are among the first to discuss skill-enabled VUI design in the research community.

Despite the apparent lack of literature, there are general design principles that could apply to our case. Don Norman’s Design of Everyday Things (Norman, 2013) introduces seven fundamental principles of design, three of which are especially relevant to this study of VUIs: (1) Discoverability, which, when applied to skills, suggests that Alexa should let users know what voice commands are available; (2) Feedback, which suggests that Alexa should inform users of which skills they are currently interacting with; and (3) Conceptual Model, which would require Alexa to help users understand that skills are developed by third parties. As we will show in the survey results, Alexa’s design appear inconsistent with these principles, thus exposing users to security and privacy risks. We leave for future work to evaluate Alexa’s design against the remaining four design principles: affordances, signifiers, mappings, and constraints.

3.2. Human Interactions with Voice User Interfaces

A large body of work studies how humans interact with VUIs and what kind of relationship is developed as a result. For instance, researchers found that some users personified their VUI devices and treated the devices with emotion as if the devices were family members or friends (Gao et al., 2018; Lopatovska and Williams, 2018; Purington et al., 2017). Past work has also found that interactions with VUIs were integrated with activities or conversations involving the entire household, including children (Porcheron et al., 2018; Sciuto et al., 2018). However, some researchers identified privacy concerns for VUIs in the public space, resulting in greater user caution when users transmitted sensitive information than non-sensitive information (Moorthy and Vu, 2015). In this paper, we also study how users interact with a VUI (i.e., Alexa), but we specifically focus on how users could be confused by Alexa’s design and how users might leak sensitive information due to this confusion.

3.3. Security and Privacy Risks

Users face multiple security and privacy risks that originate from a number of actors. First, manufacturers of voice assistants, i.e., the first parties, may collect potentially sensitive recordings of users without the users’ knowledge, for instance, through the always-on microphones. This design may lead to accidentally recording sensitive conversations and sharing the data with the manufacturers (Malkin et al., 2019; Chung et al., 2017). In addition to manufacturers, third-party skills (or “actions” on Google Home) could also present security and privacy risks to users. In particular, a third-party malicious skill could effectively phish a user by pretending to be another benign skill. As demonstrated in a proof of concept by Kumar et al. (Kumar et al., 2018b) and Zhang et al. (Zhang et al., 2019), a malicious skill could use an invocation name that sounds similar to a benign skill, such as “Capital One” (legitimate banking skill) and “Capital Won” (malicious skill).

At the time of writing, neither Amazon Alexa nor Google Home provides users with audio or visual clues regarding which skill the user is interacting with. This design decision may result in users invoking the wrong skills and providing sensitive information to malicious third parties. While both of these papers focused on skills with similar-sounding names, we study how users could be confused by skills in general (including those with similar-sounding names). Also, whereas these papers demonstrated attackers’ capabilities, we empirically show, from the user’s perspective, that a user could fall prey to such malicious skills.

4. Survey Method

To understand how users conceptualize and interact with Alexa and its skills, we conducted surveys of both Alexa owners and non-owners in two populations: 103 undergraduate and graduate university students (“University Survey”) and 134 participants through Amazon Mechanical Turk (“MTurk Survey”). Having both surveys enabled us to survey a wide swath of participants (Redmiles et al., 2019). We tested both owners and non-owners to better understand whether previously owning or using an Alexa affected a participant’s familiarity with the device and how skills operate. Both surveys were approved by our university’s Institutional Review Board (IRB).

4.1. Recruitment

Recruitment method: We conducted the University Survey between March 27 and April 10, 2019. We recruited 103 U.S. university student participants by email through our university’s survey research center (SRC). The SRC randomly selected students and emailed them a link to the survey hosted on Qualtrics. We incentivized participation by awarding approximately 1/10 participants with an Amazon Echo device. We did not require Alexa ownership or experience in the recruitment criteria, although participants who decided to take the survey were presumably aware of or interested in Alexa.

Based on our initial findings, we expanded the survey (i.e., asking participants how often they used Alexa) and conducted the MTurk Survey between April 19 and May 9, 2019. Through Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk), we recruited 134 English-speaking participants with at least a bachelor’s degree. Participants were paid at least minimum wage for the ten-minute survey. To ensure quality responses, we shared the survey only with MTurk users with approval ratings over 95% and who were MTurk “masters”, a special designation Amazon gives only to the top-performing MTurk users. Again, Alexa ownership or experience was not a part of the recruitment criteria.

Removing participants: To exclude low-quality responses and their participants, we added multiple attention checks throughout Survey Sections 3 and 4 (i.e., after we described key concepts such as skills in Survey Section 2), such as “who build native Alexa skills” and “who build third-party Alexa skills,” with “Amazon” and “non-Amazon” as the choices. In doing so, we hoped to remove participants who failed to understand the concept of third-party skills. In a further effort to filter out low-quality participants, we also prevented re-try attempts and added a time-limit to the survey.

Characteristics of participants: Of the participants reached through our university’s SRC, all were current undergraduate or graduate students. While participants came from a wide range of specific majors, about 40.4% were in an engineering-related subject. 51.0% identified as male, 47.0% as female, and 2.0% as other. 19.6% of participants own an Alexa. We did not ask how often the participants used their Alexa devices.

For the MTurk survey, all participants have a bachelor’s degree (as verified by Mechanical Turk), a 95% approval rating or higher, and Mechanical Turk “Masters” status. 51.9% identified as male and 48.1% as female. 75.2% of participants own an Alexa. Of those that own an Alexa, 34.0% have owned it for less than a year, 40.0% for 1-2 years, and 26.0% for over 2 years. A majority (56.1%) use it several times a day while 9.2% use it less than once a week, 7.1% once a day, and 27.6% several times a week.

Limitations: Because our study is limited to current university students and users of Amazon Mechanical Turk, our overall subject population is likely more tech-savvy than the general population. For example, 86% of MTurk participants owned either an Alexa or some other smart device (smart device being defined as any Internet-connected device other than a computer or phone). Nevertheless, we believe that our results are generally applicable; if anything, the general population that is less tech-savvy would highlight a general lack of awareness about Alexa skills than our survey results already do with the tech-savvy population.

4.2. Survey Questions

The general goals of the survey were to understand what are participants’ privacy expectations with regard to native and third-party skills on Alexa, whether participants can differentiate between native and third-party functionality, and whether participants know what voice commands skills accept. To this end, we included the following four sections in the Qualtrics survey.

4.2.1. Survey Section 1: Pre-definition Questions about Alexa

Through this survey section, we aimed to understand users’ privacy expectations of skills before we defined the terms native/third-party skills for them. Per Norman’s design principles (Norman, 2013), our goal was to check whether users’ Conceptual Model of third-party skills was consistent with the reality.

To this end, we asked the following questions. We first asked a general true/false question, “Everything Alexa says is programmed by Amazon,” and we counted the number of respondents with each answer “yes” or “no” (correct answer).

Additionally, we produced and presented the following videos in order, in which a member of the research team engaged in a conversation with Alexa in the lab. We then asked users where they thought the data from the conversation was sent: to “Only Amazon”, “Only Third Parties”, or “Both”. Interested readers can view all our videos (including those in later survey sections) at our anonymized project webpage,

  • Video 1A: Add Rubber Ball to Shopping Cart
    A user (i.e., a member of the research team) asks Alexa to add a rubber ball to his cart, and Alexa responds, “Ok, I’ve added a choice for rubber ball to David’s Amazon Cart.” This is an actual interaction that occurs when a user asks Alexa to add an item to the cart. In the survey, we asked each participant, “Immediately as result of the following conversation, what parties do you think know David added a rubber ball to his Amazon cart?” The correct response is “Only Amazon.”

  • Video 1B: Bedtime Story
    The following conversation occurs:
    User: “Alexa, open ‘I’m going to bed’.”
    Alexa: “Time for a bedtime story! First, what’s your name?”
    User: “Benji.”
    Alexa: “Ok, Benji! Here’s your story.”
    This skill is an example third-party bedtime story skill we built (which we did not publicly release). In the survey, we asked each participant, “Immediately as result of the following conversation, what parties do you think know your name is ‘Benji’?” The correct response is “Both.”

After showing Video 1B, we asked each participant to provide a free-text open-ended response to explain their rationale for their answer.

4.2.2. Survey Section 2: Defining Key Alexa Concepts/Terms

In this survey section, we briefly described to participants what an Alexa skill is and what native and third-party skills mean. The goal is for us to ensure, to our best effort, that the participants understood these concepts in later sections, as we would test whether participants could distinguish between native and third-party skills and capabilities.

4.2.3. Survey Section 3: Differentiating Native and Third-Party Skills

To test whether participants could differentiate between native third-party skills – effectively whether Alexa was able to offer Feedback (per Norman’s design principles (Norman, 2013)) on which skills a user was interacting with – we embedded five video clips and five audio clips in this section of the Qualtrics survey and asked for the participants’ response. Similar to Videos 1A and 1B, we produced the following clips ourselves and presented them to the participants in order.

The video clips show a member of the research team interacting with a native or third-party skill. After we showed each clip, we asked participants whether the participant had interacted with a native or third-party Alexa skill.

  • Video 3A: Tell a Joke (native). A user asks Alexa for a joke and Alexa responds with a joke.

  • Video 3B: Jeopardy (third-party). A user asks Alexa to play Jeopardy (a US game show) and the game begins with the voice of Alex Trebek (Jeopardy’s host).

  • Video 3C: Baseball Scores (third-party). A user asks Alexa about the Astros (a baseball team) and Alexa responds with the latest scores.

  • Video 3D: Rain Sounds (third-party). A user asks Alexa to play rain sounds and Alexa responds with the sound.

  • Video 3E: Parental Controls (third-party). A user asks Alexa to enable parental controls and Alexa responds confirming the user would like to do that. While Videos 3B through 3D feature real skills available on the Amazon Skill Store, the parental control skill in this video is not public; in fact, we developed this skill ourselves using Alexa Skill Kit and made it available only to the Amazon Echo in our lab. We designed this skill to sound as if it could configure parental controls on Alexa, although in reality parental controls cannot be configured verbally with Alexa.

We also showed audio messages that we recorded from a native skill or third-party skill. The third-party skill could be from the Skill Store (alexa-skills-store, 2019), or it could be developed by us and not released publicly. We asked each participant to respond whether the message was a real system message (i.e., native skill) or a fake one (i.e., third-party skill masquerading as a native skill).

  • Audio 3A: Wi-Fi (fake). “You seem to be disconnected from Wi-Fi. Please hold down the circle button in order to reconnect.” Similar to the skill in Video 3E, we developed a private skill that hard-coded the message above. Following the instructions would initiate a hard reset of the device.

  • Audio 3B: Problem with Response (real). “There was a problem with the requested skill’s response.” Alexa generates this verbal message when a third-party skill’s response is not configured correctly.

  • Audio 3C: Link (fake). “Sorry, something is wrong with this device. Please restart or go to for more information.” Again, we developed this private skill ourselves. A malicious third-party skill could say this message (e.g., in the middle of other activities of the skill, thus giving the illusion that this is a system-generated message) , replacing the URL with that of a phishing website to obtain sensitive user information.

  • Audio 3D: Sorry (real). “Sorry, I’m not sure about that.” Alexa generates this message when it cannot understand the user’s voice commands.

  • Audio 3E: Amazon Account (fake). “Sorry, before using this device you need to connect your Amazon account.” We developed this private skill ourselves.

4.2.4. Survey Section 4: Voice Commands that Alexa Understands

Finally, we aimed to test whether Alexa offers users Discoverability, per Norman’s design principles (Norman, 2013), or whether users know what voice commands can be understood by Alexa.

In particular, we asked participants whether the following invocation phrases could open skills on Alexa: “Open Grubhub,” “What’s the NY Times report,” “Find my iPhone,” “Quit,” “Please go away,” and “There’s a bug over there.” With the exception of “Quit” (which lets users leave a particular skill), all these phrases can open actual Alexa skills on the Skill Store or those we developed in private (e.g., “Please go away” and “There’s a bug over there.”).

We also asked whether certain actions can be accomplished with Alexa verbally: changing device volume, muting device, checking WiFi connection, changing Amazon password, ordering items on Amazon, turning off device, and turning on/off parental controls. At the time of writing, the only actions that Alexa can accomplish are changing device volume and ordering Amazon items. These questions are relevant, as participants’ expectations of what can be done on Alexa and what invokes third parties on Alexa can influence their ability to differentiate between native and third-party skills.

Figure 1. Number of participants. The numbers in parentheses indicate the sample size.

4.3. Data Analysis

Preparing data for analysis: We downloaded the survey responses from Qualtrics as CSV files and analyzed the data in Python Pandas. We removed 3 University participants and 48 MTurk participants for failing the attention checks.

Labeling participant groups: As will be discussed in the Findings section, we analyzed the responses in terms of different levels of familiarity and experience with Alexa. To facilitate this analysis, we created three participant groups: (i) “Everyone, ” which refers to all 237 participants; “Owners/All,” which is a subset of “Everyone” that refers to those that own Alexa devices, including 21 and 101 participants in the University and MTurk surveys respectively; and “Owners/Freq,” which is a subset of “Owners/All” that includes owners of Alexa that had owned the device for at least a year and indicated usage “multiple times a day or more.” We used these labels to denote users with potentially increasing levels of familiarity and experience with Alexa. Since we did not ask how often University participants used Alexa, all 41 “Owners/Freq” participants were from the MTurk survey. We provide a summary in Figure 1.

Coding free-text responses: For each free-text open-ended survey question, one member of the research team coded all responses using qualitative techniques (Saldañna, 2013). Example codes tagged phenomena of interest related to a participant’s mental model of Alexa – for instance, whether Amazon alone handled the interaction, or whether a third party was involved. Another member of the team then individually reviewed the codes and we discussed final themes as a research team. For both free-text survey questions, the second team member was able to validate all the codes/responses without disagreement.

5. Results

Our survey results yield three major themes:

  1. Many participants are unaware that Alexa skills can be developed by third parties.

  2. Even when informed that Alexa skills can be developed by third parties, most participants could not differentiate between native Alexa functionality and third-party skills, nor between real and fake Alexa system messages. Interestingly, frequent users were even less able to distinguish native from third-party skills.

  3. Alexa users often do not understand the standards of how the Alexa system functions nor what is possible and not possible on Alexa.

5.1. Finding 1: Participants are unaware that skills are developed by third parties

Our results showed that participants’ Conceptual Models (Norman, 2013) of who develops skills and who could see the users’ data are inconsistent with the reality, where third parties can build skills and thereby have access to user behavioral data (Amazon Alexa, 2019).

Figure 2. Responses to the question, “Everything Alexa says is programmed by Amazon.” Correct answer: “no.”

5.1.1. Some participants assume all Alexa contents/capabilities are handled by first party

The participants’ Conceptual Model of the device, particularly with regard to who builds skills, runs counter to reality. As shown in Figure 2, when asked whether “everything Alexa says is programmed by Amazon” in Survey Section 1 (with “no” as the correct answer), 62.4% of all participants (“Everyone”) thought the statement was true. In particular, 68.9% of “Owners/All” answered “yes,” which suggests that familiarity with Alexa may not always correspond to a more accurate Conceptual Model.

5.1.2. Some participants are unaware that third-party skills could collect data

Figure 3. Responses two videos. Video 1A: What parties do you think know David added a rubber ball to his Amazon cart? Correct answer: “Only Amazon.” Video 1B: What parties do you think know your name is Benji? Correct answer: “Both.”

In Survey Section 1, some participants were unaware that third parties could collect user data through Alexa skills. Figure 3 shows participants’ responses to Videos 1A and 1B that were meant to gauge whether the participant understood that Amazon had third-party skills, and that the third parties had access to user responses. In particular, 46.8% of “Everyone” understood that only Amazon had access to the cart information (Video 1A), and this percentage increased as the level of familiarity and experience increased; in fact, some 65.9% of “Owners/Freq” answered correctly. For Video 1B, however, the more experienced participants were associated with lower rate of correctness; for example, 56.1% of “Owners/Freq” incorrectly believed only Amazon knew the name was Benji, compared with only 41.4% of “Everyone.” Again, familiarity with Alexa may not always correspond to a more accurate Conceptual Model.

Figure 4. User explanation (coded) for their responses to Video 1B.

In an open-ended free-text question after Video 1B, we asked why each participant answered in a certain way. Three themes emerged from the responses: (i) Amazon originally having the user data and subsequently sharing it with third parties (“Amazon sharing”); (ii) Amazon originally having the data but not sharing it with third parties (“Amazon not sharing”); and (iii) understanding that a third-party skill could directly have access to the data (“3rd-party skill”). For empty responses or vague responses, we used the code “Vague/empty.”

We present a distribution of these codes in Figure 4, which suggests that only 25.0% of “Everyone” understood that skills had direct access to the data, rather than relying on Amazon to share the data. This percentage decreases as the level of familiarity and experience with Alexa increases; in fact, only 12.2% of “Owners/Freq” made the same choice. An example of a response showing this understanding included S1R13, “Data is shared by the third party developer of the app” and another participant, S2R8, who wrote: “I think it is a skill developed by another party, and they will have access to this data”.

For participants that were not aware of the skills, many believed that their interactions with Alexa were strictly with Amazon. Overall, 27.1% of “Everyone” were coded “Amazon not sharing.” For instance, S1R30 wrote: “As far as I’m aware, Amazon doesn’t sell any data to other companies, it only uses it privately (I could be wrong but I think this is true).” Similarly, S2R23 responded: “Alexa is connected to Amazon and I think most info is stored and shared only with Amazon.” In contrast, 11.0% of “Everyone” believed Amazon did share data with third-parties (as opposed to skill developers having direct access to the data). For instance, S1R5 wrote: “There have been enough reports of information sharing across ’The Internet of Things’ for me to presume that any information given to a smart device, especially one belonging to the Amazon company, is shared with other parties and services.” and S2R24 wrote: “I don’t trust anyone to not sell or share data. They all do it.”

In summary, most of these responses (38.1% of “Everyone”) centered around whether or not Amazon shared the data rather than the interaction being with a third party itself. While participants’ opinions on data sharing is irrelevant to this paper, their responses shed light on their Conceptual Model of Alexa. For a majority of participants, an Alexa user interacts directly with Amazon alone, and only Amazon possesses data from the exchange as a direct consequence. This Conceptual Model contrasts greatly with the reality, where a skill can be built by any developer and anything a user says in such an interaction can go directly to the developer.

Figure 5. Differentiating between native and third-party skills. Only Video 3A (highlighted) shows a native skill.
Figure 6. Differentiating real system message from fake ones. Only the messages from Audios 3B and 3D are real (highlighted); the rest are fake.

5.2. Finding 2: Some participants cannot differentiate between native and third-party skills and messages

Even if users have an accurate Conceptual Model of Alexa with regard to its third party skills, it is still crucial that they receive clear Feedback (Norman, 2013) during conversations with Alexa that suggest whether that exchange was with a third party.

In this section, we show that the majority of our participants were unable to differentiate between native and third-party skills. A consequence of these results is that Alexa users, even if they have an accurate Conceptual Model of Alexa and its skills, might not get clear Feedback from Alexa with regard to whether they have interacted with a third party. In fact, users might mistake third party skills for native functionality, which can have serious ramifications for their privacy and security.

5.2.1. Differentiating between native and third-party skills

In Survey Section 3, we asked participants to watch Videos 3A through 3E of a person interacting with an Alexa device. After each video, we asked participants whether the person in the video interacted with a native or third-party Alexa skill. Only Video 3A referred to a native skill.

Figure 5 presents the participant responses. Although the majority of participants could correctly identify Videos 3A and 3B (intended as easier examples), the accuracy was much lower for the remaining videos. In the worst case, only 3.0% of “Everyone” and 4.9% of “Owners/Freq” could correctly identify “Parental control” (Video 3E) as a third-party skill. This result shows that a user could potentially confuse a third-party skill – whether malicious or not – with what appears to be native functionality; the user may accidentally leak sensitive information to the unintended third party.

Additionally, experience and familiarity with Alexa did not always correlate with more correct responses. In fact, while 33.3% of “Everyone” could correctly identify “Baseball Scores” (Video 3C) as a third-party skill, only 22.0% of “Owners/Freq” could do so. This result is inline with our previous findings for Video 1B (Figure 3).

Participant responses after Videos 3A and 3C are particularly troubling. In Video 3A, following the message’s instructions (holding down the circle button on an Echo device) would restart the system. In Video 3C, the fake message prompts users to go to a website (in this case, just the Amazon website), creating potential for a phishing attack if the website is not The fact that participants might accept system information verbally gives potentially malicious skills significant leeway in the types of attacks they might perform. For example, a fake skill could ask the user for their Wi-Fi password or tell them their Alexa device is malfunctioning. A user’s potential inability to differentiate between real and fake system messages helps enable voice squatting and masquerading attacks (Zhang et al., 2019; Kumar et al., 2018b), and such attacks could be expanded to better incorporate system messages (for example, a voice masquerading skill could respond with an error message and then stay open).

5.2.2. Differentiating between real (native) and fake messages (which we built)

In Survey Section 3, we asked each participants to listen to Audios 3A through 3E. As shown in Figure 6, a majority of participants were unable to differentiate between real (i.e., as a result of native skills) and fake (i.e., as a result of third-party skills) Alexa system messages. For example, 88.6% of “Everyone” and 92.7% of “Owners/Freq” thought that the “WiFi” message was real. Again, familiarity of Alexa may not be correlated with a higher rate of correct responses.

Figure 7. User explanation (coded) for their responses to Audios 3A and 3E.

After Audios 3A and 3E, we asked participants to briefly explain their answers in the University Survey.111We did not ask for free-text response in the MTurk survey to reduce the survey burden. We grouped the responses into four categories: (i) functionality appearing to make sense (“Functionality okay”); (ii) functionality not making sense (“Functionality not okay”); (iii) audio sounding real or participant having heard it before (“Sounds real”); and (iv) audio sounding fake or participant never having heard it before (“Sounds fake”). We coded vague or empty responses as “Vague/empty.”

We present the distribution of the codes in Figure 7. In both cases, “Functionality okay” and “Sounds real” dominate the reasons (while ignoring vague/empty responses). In particular, 33.3% of “Everyone” thought Audio 3E’s functionality made sense; for example, S1R23 said the response was real because “WiFi is necessary for Alexa function”, and S1R42, who responded it was fake because “I am not sure that Alexa has anything to do with Wifi.” These responses suggest that some participants made judgements on the authenticity of a message based on whether the message was consistent with Alexa functionality. The fact that participants made these judgements based on functionality implies that a fake skill masquerading as the native system performing a reasonable task might seem believable; as will be presented later, participants did not have clear conceptions of what is reasonable on Alexa.

Furthermore, 9.6% of “Everyone” felt the clip sounded real or claimed to have heard it before; for example, S1R8, responded: “I’ve heard this one before”, while S1R2 said the exact opposite: “I have not heard this previously.” Similarly, S1R11 explained their response that the video was real based on Alexa’s voice: “It sounds official?” These explanations suggest that participants made judgements based on the sound of a message. While these judgements are reasonable for users of a VUI, they can confuse users when Alexa uses the same voice for all functionality. This can be seen in the examples of participants that insisted they had heard Audio 3A before, which is impossible given we faked the message.

5.3. Finding 3: Some participants do not know what voice commands can invoke skills

Given previous findings that many users cannot differentiate between native and third-party skills, it is crucial that Discoverability be well incorporated into Alexa’s design (Norman, 2013). If users are unable to differentiate third-party skills from native functionality, they need a clear understanding of Alexa standards with regard to third-party skills so that a third-party skill cannot mimic native functionality. In this section, we present results that suggest that users do not have a clear understanding of what phrases can invoke third-party Alexa skills and what verbal functionality the Alexa system does and does not provide.

Figure 8. Can each of the phrases above invoke an Alexa skill? In reality, all phrases, except “Quit” (highlighted), can invoke an actual skill.

5.3.1. Users do not understand what phrases can invoke third-party skills on Alexa

Many participants held incorrect assumptions regarding what phrases can invoke third-party Alexa skills. While many participants believed there were logical limits to what phrases can invoke an Alexa skill, in reality, nearly any phrase is enough (as long as it begins with the wake word “Alexa”). Although Amazon encourages developers to design skills with a few recommended invocation phrases (such as “Open ¡invocation name¿” and “Ask ¡invocation name¿ ¡some action¿”), Alexa is designed to, at a minimum, open skills by just their name (understanding, 2019). Since this name can be arbitrary, the invocation phrase is unbounded, thus creating challenges for Discoverability.

In Survey Section 4, we asked participants whether the six invocation phrases could open skills on Alexa. As shown in Figure 8, most participants understood that more conventional (based on Amazon’s standards (understanding, 2019)) phrases such as “open Grubhub” and “what’s the New York Times report?” can invoke skills on Alexa. In contrast, a majority of participants (54.8% and 68.6%, respectively) incorrectly responded that “please go away” and “there’s a bug over there” cannot invoke skills on Alexa. Even though at the time of writing no actual skills on the Amazon Store respond to such invocation phrases, we successfully developed two private skills that could respond as such.

These results highlight a problem, especially given that users often cannot differentiate native and third-party skills (as shown in Findings 2). The fact that many users may not understand which phrases can successfully invoke third-party skills makes it even more likely they can accidentally invoke some skill and not realize it has been built by a third party. It may also increase the likelihood of invoking a malicious skill that can try to imitate the system or mimic another skill  (Zhang et al., 2019; Kumar et al., 2018b). A salient example of an attack that could leverage this result is the fake parental controls skill presented in Finding 2, which a vast majority of participants believed was real and native. Even if a malicious actor is not involved, users could still accidentally invoke a third-party skill without realizing so and transmit sensitive information to unintended third parties.

Figure 9. Can you verbally do this with Alexa? In reality, users can only change the device volume and order items on Amazon (both highlighted) through verbal commands.

5.3.2. Some participants did not know what can and cannot be done with Alexa verbally

Participants often did not have clear intuitions regarding what can and cannot be done with Alexa verbally (rather than through the app or with physical buttons on the device).

As shown in Figure 9, participants believed that most of the given tasks – except changing the Amazon password – could be done verbally with Alexa, further expanding the potential attack space for malicious skills. In reality, only changing volume and ordering Amazon goods are feasible through Alexa’s voice interface, although 90.7% of “Everyone” thought they could verbally mute Alexa and 79.3% of “Everyone” believed they could check the status of WiFi verbally. If a skill were to exist (whether malicious or benign) that responded to any of these invalid invocation phrases, a user may believe that he or she was interacting with the native system (especially given Findings 2) and potentially leak sensitive information.

It is worth pointing out that a vast majority (88.6%) of “Everyone” did not believe one can verbally change their password with Alexa, presumably because changing password on non-verbal interfaces (e.g., on the web) could be the conventional practice and doing so over the VUI may deviate from this standard. As such, there is potentially hope of raising awareness for users to understand what can (e.g., changing volume) and cannot (e.g., changing passwords) be achieved natively on Alexa; this awareness would likely help users distinguish some third-party skills and native skills and protect their privacy.

6. Recommendations for VUI design

Some of Alexa’s design decisions are inconsistent with Norman’s design principles: Conceptual Model, Feedback, and Discoverability (Norman, 2013). These inconsistencies likely led to the observations in our survey results. In this section, we propose design recommendations for Alexa – and VUIs in general – based on these principles and our findings.

6.1. Recommendation 1: Having clear indications of contexts

Our results show that many participants were unable to distinguish between native and third-party skills (Finding 2), and this problem was compounded by the lack of awareness of third-party skills in the first place (Finding 1). These findings suggest that Alexa’s design is inconsistent with the Conceptual Model and Feedback principles.

Our recommendation is for Alexa to clearly indicate the context to its users. This approach would provide users with the correct Conceptual Model that there are differences between native and third-party skills and among the third-party skills. Moreover, the approach would offer Feedback to users as to what context the interactions are in.

Past research in this realm has already yielded useful insights. To protect against voice masquerading attacks, for instance, Zhang et al. proposed a “Skill Response Checker” that checks VUI responses for phrases that can be used to mimic the system (Zhang et al., 2018). Although such features could be effective deterrents in some cases, our research suggests that users might believe a wide array of messages, e.g., Audio 3A, 3C and 3E, to be native system messages that would be difficult to blacklist individually. Furthermore, our research suggests that privacy concerns can arise even when skills are not trying to be malicious. Because users cannot always differentiate between native and third-party skills, it is possible a third-party skill might request information that, although not inherently malicious, a user may not want to give.

One recommendation is for Alexa devices to show visual and audio cues. In particular, Amazon Echo already uses the Light Ring to display system state, such as powering on, listening, connecting to the network, or making phone calls (alexa-light-ring, 2019). Alexa could indicate native and third-party contexts using the Light Ring, e.g., flashing the lights as users switches from the native context to a third-party skill, or showing different colors for native and third-party skills. Aside from visual cues, Alexa could also leverage audio cues, e.g., using different voices for native and third-party skills or playing a chime as a user switches from one skill to another. The fact that 79.7% of participants responded that Jeopardy is a non-native skill (Figure 5) suggests that the change from Alexa to Alex Trebek’s voice may have tipped off users.

Although these recommendations may help a user distinguish between native and third-party skills, there is a tradeoff between usability and transparency about the origin of the skill. The visual cues are unlikely to be effective if users do not look at the Light Ring (especially if an Amazon Echo device is stowed away in a corner of a room and used primarily via voice). Also, there are already 12 distinct visual patterns on the Light Ring (alexa-light-ring, 2019); adding more patterns to indicate context might further confuse users. The audio cues, on the other hand, may be a distraction to users, as Amazon attempts to build a seamless voice conversation experience where users are not expected to notice the switch in the skill context (conversations, 2019).

6.2. Recommendation 2: Following consistent Alexa design standards

Finding 3 shows that some participants do not know what commands Alexa can understand to invoke skills. This observation highlights a design of Alexa that is inconsistent with the Discoverability principle.

A comprehensive education of all available commands is unrealistic, as it places unnecessary cognitive burden on the user. According to one guide (Martin, 2019), there are more than 200 commands to invoke various native skills. Furthermore, for every new third-party skill invoked, a user would have to remember the new commands associated with the skill.

Given that there are at least 47,000 skills available, Alexa could learn from the Discoverability design principle (Norman, 2013) and follow common standards on what functions are and are not available on Alexa natively. For instance, it is possible for an Alexa user to change the volume but not mute the device, set an alarm but not change the time zone, buy groceries but not music. One simple solution is for all hardware-related commands to be strictly non-verbal. Whenever the Alexa system detects a command for a hardware-related feature such as changing the volume, it should clearly respond that such kinds of commands cannot be done; currently, if a user asks Alexa to mute the device or turn off, Alexa just ignores the command. Again, the exact design is not as important as Amazon setting a consistent standard that it clearly shares with developers and users.

Additionally, Alexa could impose strict standards on how to invoke skills. The fact that “Please go away” could actually invoke a skill (Finding 3) potentially threatens users’ privacy. Although Amazon recommends certain common phrases for invoking skills such “Ask ¡invocation name¿ ¡some action¿”, “Tell ¡invocation name¿ ¡some action¿”, and “Open ¡invocation name¿”, any phrase (other than some reserved for system functionality) can be used to open a third-party skill on Alexa (understanding, 2019). This design creates a potentially confusing situation for users. While many skills conform to common naming standards, Alexa’s design leaves a backdoor for malicious skills to trick users or for one skill to accidentally obtain sensitive user information instead of the intended one. We recommend that Alexa follow a strict standard for invocation – for instance, “Open ¡invocation name¿,” but not any other phrases. Another recommendation is for Alexa to announce information about the skill, such as the developer’s name, before running the skill for the first time; this approach could provide users with more transparency on the third party. However, these recommendations are, again, associated with usability trade-offs, because they make Alexa’s VUI less flexible and more cumbersome to interact with and may go against Amazon’s attempts to build a seamless voice conversation experience (conversations, 2019).

7. Future Work

Although most of our participants believed that the “malicious” skills we had developed were native skills, it is unclear how often similar skills could be deployed on the Amazon Skill Store. If these malicious skills are prevalent, a user could confuse a malicious skill for a native skill or another benign skill, or a user could confuse one benign skill for another benign skill; in either case, the user could be revealing sensitive information to an unintended third-party skill developer, which poses a privacy risk.

To identify such skills in the wild, one of the challenges is scalability. In particular, more than 47,000 skills are available on the Amazon Skill Store at the time of writing. We would need to develop a method to programmatically invoke each skill and, based on the skill’s response, determine if the skill resemble another native or third-party skill whether intentionally or unintentionally, as such resemblance may cause confusion among users. This automatic technique is difficult, because skills are executed remotely and each verbal interaction with a skill is associated with an HTTP request (alexa-voice-service, 2019). Unlike mobile apps, for which we can use off-the-shelf-tools for static (e.g., by downloading the binaries) and dynamic analyses (e.g., Android Monkey (Developers, 2001)), we are not aware of any established tools or techniques to analyze skills at scale. We defer this analysis to future work.

8. Conclusion

In this paper, we surveyed 237 new and existing users of Alexa devices. We found that some participants were unaware that skills could be developed by third parties, that most participants failed to distinguish native and third-party skills and voice messages, and that they often did not understand what functions or voice commands could be understood by Alexa. Surprisingly, participants with more familiarity and experience with Alexa tended to show signs of confusion. These findings suggest that a user may accidentally invoke an unintended skill without being aware of this mistake; regardless of whether the skill is malicious or benign, the uninteded third party may obtain sensitive user information, thus giving rise to privacy risks. Our recommendations include developing audio and visual indicators of native and third-party contexts, as well as following a consistent design standard to help users learn what functions are and are not possible on Alexa.


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