Alexa, Who’s Listening to Me?

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.

Graph and data from eMarketer.com

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.

11 comments

  1. As someone who rents, I’ve never had the interest or need to make a ‘smart’ apartment. I don’t own any smart devices other than my phone and watch; I’m not sure if owning a home would change my mind, other than installing a device with a camera built in. As you said, there are many security risks with these smart home speakers, but these devices are so popular that people feel the need to own them…they are ‘trendy.’ I like how you discussed some of the ways to combat security risks, coupled with the downside of losing some of the benefits these devices offer when taking the steps to be secure. If you live with roommates and they have a smart home speaker, should you feel worried about being listened to? And should this be a conversation to have with the roommate? Should the speaker remain in their room when they aren’t home? Curious to see how others would feel about this.

  2. I have had my Alexa for about a year now, and I am a fan of it, but even when I got it the listening fact did cross my mind. We have all heard the jokes about the government listening in on us, but what I was immediately catching onto was the advertisements I was receiving. I noticed a difference and striking coincidence in some of the products that were coming through on my devices, a lot things my roommate or I had maybe spoken about in passing. I had no idea about the drop in functionality of product, this sounds like a similar situation to Apple’s find my friends, a technology that started as something could, but could easily be turned into something bad. It will be interesting to see these products become more regulated with the evolving digital privacy laws.

    1. This is fascinating! Can you name an example of when a product was promoted to you after you had spoken about it with your roomate? I would say this is a great example of crossing the line from ‘cool’ into ‘creepy’!

      1. Perfect example of this when we stared talking about ditching our xfinity rented router and for our own. From that point on all I had was add for routers and modems, not really a common ad you see haha

  3. Great deep dive on Alexa and the use of smart technology. I do not own an Alexa nor have had a desire to. There are so many devices we as humans are programmed to have and rely on. It amazes me how much effort and dependance goes into these technologies that we become lazy. Because of the additional smart technologies in our world, security will always been an issue. How do you control security across the board when there are so many factors at play? This will be a huge opportunity for tech firms to exercise their power and win their loyal consumers over.

  4. Interesting post. The problem with all the anti-Alexa privacy hype is that our phone and laptop cameras can already be hacked in the same way. Smart speakers just make it more apparent because they make use of this access to provide services. That’s fundamentally what the Edward Snowden hype was about, he revealed that the US government had the capability to turn any phone into a listening device.

  5. First of all, thanks for the tips on how to limit the listening abilities of my smart speaker. Second, I think this kind of relates to the Facebook readings/discussion we had last week. Zuckerberg didn’t realize the power/danger of what he had created and sometimes I think most other developers are just as naive. Unfortunately, in today’s world, each time a developer comes up with the coolest new innovation that will make our lives so much easier or cooler (like the smart speaker), they also have to think of the worst possible alternative and start taking steps to make sure this won’t become a reality.

  6. As a self proclaimed Innovator/Early Adopter on the adoption curve of technology, I have to say that I fully embrace Alexa and all of her potential imperfections. Alexa has created a whole new quest for me, the quest for a smart apartment with voice activated lights, outlets and locks to boot. Although I recognize the security implications of having Alexa (and maybe the FBI?) always listening, I also recognize the efficiency she has brought to my routines like giving me a news brief, telling me the weather, and setting alarms without every touching my phone. Personally, I’m content, not thrilled, but content with the control I’m given over my privacy in her settings. I think that the more we can shed light into her privacy related shortcomings, the more Amazon will invest in protecting its users’. But maybe I’m just waiting for the next Cambridge Analytica scandal in the form of Alexa for my own personal wake up call, and my questionable break up with Alexa. However, until I feel that they data she gathers on me and my routines, if she is gathering anything significant, has crossed my personal creepy cool line and has taken advantage of me as a consumer, I will still trust in Alexa to make my life, my routines, more efficient.

  7. It’s funny how the futuristic movies/shows from the ’90s or early ’00s paint a pretty accurate picture of what connected homes look like today. Back then, I think the vast majority of viewers thought of that IoT future as cool, and I doubt whether anyone then could’ve foreseen the negative consequences of such technology. While the concept of smart homes and smart devices and connected everything and the Internet of Things is undoubtedly useful and unquestionably cool, there are a lot of question marks about data, and subsequently, privacy. While I think it’s good that companies like Apple and Amazon have taken a stand in favor of user privacy in the courtroom, questions remain. Should companies be able to use data from recordings and conversations? While that doesn’t bother me all that much, I think a bigger issue is whether that data is actually secure. What if that data gets in the wrong hands (see: Cambridge Analytica), and how can we prevent it form doing so?

  8. You’re first paragraph about everyone getting each other an Amazon echo or Google Home was all too real. It got to the point where you could buy an Echo Dot for like $30. That’s a pretty cool gift for that price point, but it lead to everyone getting one, and I suppose that was the idea. I have one, but haven’t even set it up yet. I have a lot of concerns over abuses of these types of devices and I think everyone should. You brought up many great examples of security threats that should be considered. I wasn’t even aware of the “drop-in” feature, that seems like something I wouldn’t want to let anybody do. Knowing that these large companies control so much personal data about us including private conversations. Any law-enforcement abuse or monitoring without people’s knowledge is completely unacceptable in my opinion and I think it’s important that our privacy and individual rights remain safeguarded even in this age of connectivity.

  9. This reminds me of a rather heated debate that my section had last year during our Data II class over the statement that in today’s society, “privacy is dead.” The “dead” team referenced your exact point – the ubiquitous nature of smart home devices like Alexa as the next encroachment into our privacy. While actively engaged surfing the web or scrolling through Instagram, there are some measures that one can take to protect themselves. You can turn off or delete cookies, you can turn off location services for specific applications, you can utilize incognito mode to give you an added level of anonymity, you can even log onto the internet through more secure VPN’s or secure servers. But, Alexa is always listening. Always. As such, the privacy is no longer in the owner’s hands, but rather at the discretion of Amazon. Society does have some safeguards, whether via Amazon’s monetary incentives to protect their customers’ data and their reputation or through current legal protections (I use the term current deliberately, as legislation often lags technology and responds to major events like terrorism and natural disaster – ie Trump’s new emergency text maneuver), but largely our anonymity is essentially becoming privatized.
    Nonetheless, I bought my parents an Alexa for Christmas. I realize that no matter what they or I do, a company somewhere knows more about each of our behavior that we may know about each other’s, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon.

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