Is Your Smart Speaker Spying on You? Privacy in the Era of Home Smart Assistants

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Alexa smart home

When discussing Alexa smart home pros and cons one of the concerns that often comes up is privacy. The same is true for other virtual assistants that have become handy helpers at home, reading you the morning news briefing and telling you the day’s weather.

But are we enjoying this convenience at the expense of our privacy? Are smart speakers like Amazon Echo, Google Home and the new Apple HomePod spying on on your every word at home?

Microphones

smart home speakers
To work as intended, smart speakers are equipped with microphones. These mics are tuned to catch your voice commands from the far side of the room even with music on.

So it’s easy to understand the concern about the virtual assistants powering these speakers recording our family conversations (and off key shower singing).

But the truth is, privacy worries may have been a bit exaggerated. Google Home and Amazon Echo speakers are unlikely to record your conversations and sell them to advertisers, for now at least.

To understand why, it’s important to look at how these speakers work.

Always Listening but Not Always Recording

Amazon Echo

To work, smart speakers have to keep listening. Of course you can switch off the microphones in Google Home, Apple HomePod and Amazon Echo to stop them from listening. When switched off, you will not be able to interact with the smart assistant and the speaker will not respond to the wake word.

With the microphone on, your smart speaker uses local processing to listen for the wake word. That means it only processes seconds of conversation at a time. The processed audio is deleted as new one comes in.

When the speaker detects the wake word such as ‘Hey, Google’ or ‘Alexa’ it immediately starts recording what you are saying and transmitting it to their servers for processing. This includes the second or so just before the command according to Google and Amazon.

This is called device keyword spotting.

So your speaker is in a passive mode until you say the magic word. From then on, it will record your ensuing commands.

If you still don’t want these voice recordings hanging around, you can delete some or all of your Alexa history. But this may degrade your experience (the virtual assistant uses your interactions with it to become better at helping you find what you want).

Google also allows you to see your voice history and delete it one at a time or all at once. You can also ask Google not to store any of your voice recordings even when you have signed in.

What About the Government?

Could the government order Amazon or any other company to hand over your voice recordings?

Yes, it certainly could happen. In fact, it has already happened, sort of.

Last year, a prosecutor in a murder trial had sought Amazon Echo voice recordings of the suspect from Amazon. Amazon fought the request saying it was too broad and overreaching.

While the suspect eventually willingly allowed Amazon to share the recordings it is a worrying example of what could happen if you are a person of interest to the government.

So no precedent has been set hence it’s not clear that the government can succesfuly order Google or Amazon to hand over your voice recordings.

And in any case, these speakers record only a fraction of your daily conversations. It is highly unlikely that the government will find what they want from voice commands of you asking Google Assistant or Alexa to turn off the lights or set an alarm.

What About Hackers?

Hacker hacking a smart home speaker

The government may be constricted by the law and Amazon’s/Google’s enormous legal resources but hackers can do whatever they want. Right?

While it’s possible that hackers can hijack your camera or microphones and record you, so can they any other computer or smart device in your home.

In fact, your laptop and smartphone are easier to hack compared to an Amazon Echo or Google Home speaker. This is because your phone or computer runs on a much broader platform with more vulnerabilities though things like apps or the browser.

Some of the risk prevention comes down to you. Using a strong password for your Amazon or Google account and ensuring your home WiFi network is secure will go a long way in protecting your privacy.

No Need to Worry

With modern technology, it has always been about balancing privacy with convenience. Different people are willing to go further in one or the other direction.

If you are really paranoid about your privacy maybe because of your work or position, perhaps you are better off not getting an Amazon Echo or any other smart speaker at all.

But for the average person, there’s little need to worry…yet.

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