With the holiday season just passing, odds are you know someone who just received a smart home speaker as a gift. On Christmas morning every member of my family unwrapped either an Amazon Echo or a Google Home. We had unknowingly purchased them for each other and immediately exposed ourselves to an all new data trail. At the time I hadn’t done much research regarding the security concerns of these connected devices which are always listening, but I was aware that they must be recording at all times in order to work effectively. After receiving my very own Google Home I decided I should educate myself further on security concerns.
In the third quarter of 2018 a staggering 6.3 million Amazon smart speakers and 5.9 million Google Home devices were sold just in time for the holiday season. We have entered an unprecedented era of connectedness and many of us are unaware of the security risks that go along with it. In order to fulfill our dreams of controlling the tech in our lives by simply yelling directions at a speaker, these smart devices must be listening constantly in order to execute our commands. Not only do sales of these devices generate vast revenues, but they also give their parent companies even more power over our consumerism through larger data trails and targeted advertisements. In today’s digital age the value these devices are bringing their parent companies is immense and gaining market share in this space can lead to fast paced increases in ancillary sales.
Beyond these companies listening to our data and tailoring advertisements to us, having these devices in our homes opens a doorway for hackers to gain access to private conversations and hear what we are saying in private. However, it’s not always nefarious characters that we will have to worry about. There is speculation that law enforcement has been using the speakers to snoop on suspected criminals. Although this is largely unconfirmed and in high profile court cases Amazon declined to hand over recordings, citing it as an unethical breach of privacy to their customers.
Beyond this, many newer smart speakers have cameras built in which poses a risk for people commandeering them to watch our actions in our homes as well. Not only are there inherent risks of a camera constantly watching your home, but potential Amazon or Google usages of the data could be downright creepy. Imagine the power these companies could have if the algorithms could identify products in your home that are running low, or physical aspects about you and use them to target ads directly to you. That is a whole new level of privacy that I would not be comfortable giving up! Good thing I only have to worry about Google listening to my conversations through my smart device…
People do not have to be sophisticated hackers to hear what you are saying in front of your smart device thanks to the new “Drop-In” feature on Amazon Echo devices. This function essentially allows you to call a friend’s smart device and hear anything it does without the other user even accepting the call. While I understand many people would like the ease of calling friends and family through this function, it seems like it’s a privacy breach just waiting to happen. The good thing here is that you must enable “Drop-In” for different friends, so you must give them consent to drop in to your conversations on demand.
Although there are many concerns with the spread of smart speakers, there are some measures that can be taken to mitigate the associated risks. The first recommended step is to change the “wake” word to something you are less likely to use in everyday conversation. This reduces how often the device will accidentally respond and record your conversations. Next you could turn off your devices microphone when not in use, however this severely lowers the functionality the products are designed to have, and you would then have to manually turn the microphone back on in order to use it. Managing “Drop In” settings will make sure you are up to date with who you have given access to and will limit the pool of potential listeners to only your most trusted friends or family. In order to protect against unwanted accidental purchases, it is smart to set up a password or PIN which would have to be said in order to complete purchase commands. These simple steps will help to combat some privacy issues, but by no means will completely eliminate the potential risks. Ultimately it is up to each user to decide how much their privacy matters to them, and if these products would be a good fit. The improvements in these technologies is truly amazing and controlling our tech has never been easier – the only issue is we do not know the extent of all repercussions that could come from giving up our privacy on a whole new level.