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Switch off the mic if it makes you feel better – it'll make no difference

Treat all those micro-phonies like so many spies in the wire

Something for the Weekend My neighbor is talking to a rock. He is trying to persuade it to sing.

Urging him back to the barbecue, I make a mental note to abstain from the cheap luminous pink sparkling rosé that he'd been drinking. It's easy to recognize the bottles – I'm the one who brought them to the party.

He asks me to hang on a mo, turns back to his rockery – is it new? I never noticed it before – and addresses his favorite rock by name.


Ah, I can see what's happening here. A closer look reveals that it's one of those Bluetooth speakers disguised as a rock to make them unobtrusive in your garden.

My inbox is full of such things around this time of year and especially in advance of Father's Day. Usually it's there among the ads for GPS-tracked golf balls, monogrammed USB key fobs ("up to an incredible 4GB!"), and oversized mugs emblazoned with a badly fonted message that appears to read "World's Greatest Hocker."

But of course it's just a speaker, not a smart speaker, and so it isn't listening. I guide my neighbor back indoors to find his Echo in the kitchen. I suggest he asks Alexa to make his garden rock speaker play… heh heh… some rock music. My neighbor turns to me and says this is the funniest thing he has ever heard and that the joke had never occurred to him before, although oddly he doesn't seem to be laughing or even smiling when he says this.

Lithe Audio seems to have fitted a fairly decent speaker into its faux stone casing, unlike 99 percent of Bluetooth speakers sold to undiscerning teenagers in discount stores and supermarkets. But if audio quality doesn't matter to the listener, there are simpler ways. Engineering amateurs know you can turn just about anything into a speaker: if you can get it to vibrate, it'll speak. OK, maybe not a boulder, but glass, wood, paper…

MIT researchers have tried to fine-tune (heh) the old trick with cardboard and come up with a thin-film loudspeaker coated with a layer of piezoelectric material comprising tiny "domes" that vibrate individually on the surface. Yes, thin-film speakers are already on the market, but what these guys are suggesting is using the material as wallpaper. Your walls themselves then become loudspeakers.

At this point, my lack of expertise grows even thinner, but I'm fairly sure that if you can get something to vibrate, you may be able to adapt it to pick up sounds instead of playing them. Just as you can build miniature speakers into anything, you could build even tinier microphones into them too. I say "could" but of course building mics into devices lies at the core of the smart home device revolution.

There was a bit of a fuss several years ago when it was demonstrated that certain devices and apps were still listening to you even when you thought you had switched them off. But hey, who among us can claim never to have nipped to the loo in the middle of a long Zoomer without remembering to tap the Mute button, eh?

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Remote meeting software is a case in point. I have to use several through the course of the day to conform with whatever site license clients have invested in: Zoom, Meet, Teams, Webex, GoTo, etc.

As I flit from one to the next, they politely take turns in using my webcam. But for some reason or another, the same etiquette isn't applied to using my microphone. Instead of graciously passing control of my mic from one app to another when I quit one and launch the next, a virtual pub brawl breaks out between them in my System Tray.

Here's an example of fun audio fisticuffs* that I encounter with impressive frequency. Picture me remote-training some beginners in how to get started with video-editing software, and I announce that I shall demonstrate how to record their own voice-over track in real time. At this point, both the video-editing software and the remote meeting software try to take control of my mic simultaneously. What happens?

The results are random. Occasionally, it works fine; more often, it fails to record my voice at all; sometimes it records only in the left channel; sometimes my trainees tell me I have gone silent for a couple of minutes and would I please unmute myself.

Better still is when I suggest to my trainees that they try it out themselves. As well as the video-editing and meeting apps, who knows what other software might be loitering in the background on their computers, equally reluctant to relinquish their mics?

Trainees tell me they experience any or all of the above problems, and more besides: some get a piercing feedback screech from their loudspeakers; others get unceremoniously booted out of the training room as if the meeting app was stomping off in a teenage sulk. I can't see what trainees are up to but I like to imagine explosions going off here and there, puffs of smoke arising from behind PC air vents, sparks flying out of keyboards, plagues of frogs and locusts, the dead rising from their graves, that sort of thing.

It's odd that such chaos is rarely experienced on a smartphone, given that so many apps ask for access to your mic even when it's plain to you that such a thing is unnecessary. I can only assume they are all listening in to your every word and fart, and having a quiet snigger between them… before secretly selling your transcribed recordings to advertisers.

I read that researchers at Columbia University in New York, have been working on a method to camouflage your voice from rogue microphones by playing a special real-time audio stream – said to be "whisper-quiet" – in the background. So far, the algorithm generating this camouflage audio is said to disguise 80 percent of what you say.

Great for James Bonds and Russian oligarchs, you might think: it beats turning on the shower or playing a noisy western on TV while stiffing an opponent. But given that recent research by NordVPN suggests that two-thirds of Britons continue to use their smartphones while on the toilet, anything that can help us poor Frank Drebins is welcome too.

We might also need it elsewhere around the house as the device that's listening to you might be autonomously mobile. For example, can you voice-control your robot vacuum cleaner? Then who knows what else it's hearing? Have you ever opened your bedroom door, only to find the little bugger on the other side has been listening in to whatever secrets you have been muttering in your sleep?

Let's not get paranoid but… since you can fit a mic into anything, let's get paranoid. A team at the Beijing Institute of Technology has designed a small quadruped robot that can crawl into difficult spaces, climb walls and turn around without reversing. Essentially, it's a robot rat. Just stick a mic in its head and we're in sci-fi spy thriller territory.

And if robo-rat fails to pick up absolutely everything you say, your wallpaper can fill in the gaps.

Me, I don't want to camouflage my discourse. The words I say are my camouflage. Now when we chat at a barbecue next to a singing rock, you'll know why I talk bollocks.

It's because they're listening in.

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Alistair Dabbs
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. *He reckons Fun Audio Fisticuffs would be a fine name for a band. It would be based in Boulder, be influenced by the Stones, and of course play rock. More at Autosave is for Wimps and @alidabbs.

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