Smart speakers – justified paranoia or am I just behind the times?

Jay HineTechnologyLeave a Comment

I have to confess that even though I work in IT my house is anything but a hive of technological gadgets.

I don’t even have a smart meter!

During recent conversations more and more people admit to having installed Amazon Alexa or Google Smart Assistant devices in their homes. These devices are activated by a keyword “Alexa” or “Ok Google” which puts them into listening mode. Instructions can then be given which range from playing music, controlling the lights, heating, curtains, you name it, with an additional switch or device anything can be controlled by these devices, usually without running any cable.

The Smart Home - a worthwhile trade off?

This is an amazing concept and can turn any home into a “smart home”. The idea of being able to control your lights and heating from your mobile, while you are away, are things that only a few years ago were excessively expensive.

In addition, these devices can be asked questions about news, weather cinema, train times in fact most things.

All this seems amazing and why wouldn’t we all have one. My issue and possible paranoia is the idea that these devices are always listening. I know they are only supposed to be activated by the “keyword” but in order for that to work they are on all the time.

So what else could they be listening to?

Could they be triggered by keywords if you are discussing some news item or having an argument or your voice is raised beyond a certain limit, how much is it recording?

Who has access to the recorded material? What could it be used for? Let’s be honest how many times do you search something on the internet and then your next page is full of related items. If you said a word or phrase and these devices recorded it could they then start targeting advertising at you.

But more scarily could you get a knock on the door from the authorities after having a discussion about an unsavoury topic, arguing with your spouse, telling your kids off?

Amazon is currently being asked to share Echo data in the US in a murder case. Why was the device recording at this time? Was the keyword used or was it just permanently recording? You could argue that this technology could make people safer. The devices could be designed to contact the authorities if they feel someone is at risk. But who decides what the boundaries are?

In another twist companies are offering to place a chip into peoples hands so they can open doors, turn on lights, use the photocopier. They assure people that there is no GPS attached so movements cannot be tracked. But for how long? Technology is a wonderful thing and I am sure in the future all this will become the “normal”. I guess I am not quite ready for it yet.

I may well be paranoid, but I think I will remain so for the time being.

Update July 2019:

As an update to my paranoia I found this article relating to how Amazon has had to admit to still holding recordings even after the user deletes them.

Although this information is from the US it is still relevant to everyone who has one of these devices.

Senator Chris Coons had this to say:

“Amazon’s response leaves open the possibility that transcripts of user voice interactions with Alexa are not deleted from all of Amazon’s servers, even after a user has deleted a recording of his or her voice.”

“What’s more, the extent to which this data is shared with third parties, and how those third parties use and control that information, is still unclear.”

Full article is worth a read (and I’ve still have not purchased one of these devices!).

About the Author

A picture of Jay Hine, the author of this blog

Jay Hine

IT Director

As a Director of Optima Systems Ltd Jay is responsible for overseeing Sales and Marketing, Human Resources, Customer Relations and Account Management. In addition, Jay is responsible for the design, development, efficiency and smooth running of the IT Networks of our clients, as well as our own technical infrastructure. More about Jay.

More from Jay

Other Posts