December 26

10 comments

Is Your New Smart Home Assistant Really Listening?

The short answer is, “probably, but you don’t know when.”

Smart home assistants like Amazon’s Echo/Alexa, Google Home, or the Apple HomePod were some of the most popular holiday gifts for the second year in a row.

All of these devices function by listening so they can respond to your questions or commands. For the Amazon products using Alexa, there are thousands of different “skills” available, which include everything from playing music to online banking.

Be aware that all of these devices collect data, even when the device’s “wake word” has not been used. Some of this data is reviewed by humans to “improve the quality” of service.

The convenience of these smart assistants is appealing and entertaining, and there have been both funny and dangerous incidents associated with their use.

Data from these devices has already been subpoenaed in litigation and criminal investigations, so be careful what you let them hear!

But today you are still relaxing and enjoying the holidays, so I’ll save those more specific privacy and security topics for a post later next year.

If you have any of these devices, here are some brief suggestions that you can put to use immediately:

  • Think about where you place the device and the conversations that might be heard there.
  • Change the device’s “wake word” from the default options, so the assistant won’t activate when you don’t mean for it to be in use.
  • Disable the microphone, especially if you are about to talk about anything you wouldn’t want someone else to hear.
  • Delete your old recordings. Almost all of the companies allow you to do this, but they won’t do it for you. Also, be aware that just because you have deleted the recorded audio, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have removed all the data that has been collected by the device.
  • Make sure that your wireless network is secure. These devices can be hacked, just like almost all Internet of Things (IoT) devices.
  • Check the permissions you are allowing for any function or “skill” that you add to the device. For example, your street address and telephone number might be shared if using a skill for Uber or another ride-sharing or food delivery service.
  • Be careful adding functions from another developer that hasn’t been approved by the device manufacturer. Connecting the device to another IoT device or “skill” might be providing someone with the ability to be always listening and collecting your data.

Enjoy the holidays, and best wishes to all for a great 2020!


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