Have a smart home device in your home? You’re not alone. A rapidly growing number of people are turning to devices with Alexa, Siri or Google. Smart home assistants search online, start phone calls, order groceries, play music, turn lights on. All with a single spoken command.
The convenience of this is huge. Research into how people use Google or Alexa demonstrates the core features. Listening to music ranked first. Checking weather and asking for general information rounded out the top three. Setting timers and reminders, asking for the news or jokes (perhaps to make up for the news?) are also common.
Yet, the question remains, just how safe are these virtual assistants? After all, having a smart speaker in your home means there is always an open microphone in your house. Even asking one of these assistants if they’re spying on you gives an answer that doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
Smart Speaker and Home Assistant Safety Concerns
The convenience of the speaker demands that it always be on, ready and waiting for you to say, “Hey Siri” or “OK Google.” Once triggered the device records the command, sends the data to servers for processing, and figures out its response.
Smart speaker users can log in to view the history of queries on their accounts. This prompts some concerns that these mega-companies will use the information for financial gain. For example, those talking about an overseas holiday might start seeing related ads on their computers.
There’s also concern about what is picked up even when you aren’t talking directly to the speaker. Amazon recently admitted that it’s employees sometimes do listen to what it’s Alexa powered Echo devices hear and that occasionally, it picks up things not intended to be heard by it.
Then there’s the thought of someone hacking into the home assistant to gain access to your personal information. Those who set smart speakers as a hub for many devices also create more points of vulnerability. Especially for those who use their smart home devices to control door locks or security systems.
It’s difficult to anticipate all the ways the assistant could prove too just too good a listener.
Steps to Stay Secure with a Smart Speaker
Candid conversation sharing aside, few big privacy flubs or personal data breaches have been reported. Still, it never hurts to play it safe. If you’re taking advantage of Alexa, Siri, or Google Assistant, keep these strategies in mind:
- Clear your history. Don’t leave everything you’ve ever asked it stored on the company server. The assistant will relearn your commands quickly. In addition to this, turn off the sharing of data for development. This can be done by doing a little bit of digging within the settings app for your smart speaker (for example: you can find the Echo’s setting by going to the app and choosing Menu > Alexa Account > Alexa Privacy > Manage how your data improves Alexa > and turn off all sliders in this area)
- Connect with caution. It’s great to be able to turn on the TV and dim the lights without leaving the comfort of your sofa. Be wary of connecting security or surveillance devices to your home assistant as that means more potential weak spots.
- Mute the microphone. Yes, it undermines your ability to call from the closet “OK, Google, what’s the weather like today?” But, turning off the mic when it’s not in use stops recording without you knowing about it.
- Secure your network. Home assistants do their work by connecting to the Internet using your network. Ensure they are accessing a password protected network. They should use devices (e.g. modems) changed from default password settings.
- Unplug it. This one might seem over-the-top, but it can’t listen to you if it’s not powered right? Depending on how you use your smart speaker you may find it’s easier to just unplug the device when it’s not in use. This is the most foolproof method of keeping your privacy at a cost of a bit of inconvenience.
Smart home devices are here to stay it seems and so are the privacy concerns that come with them. With a little effort however, you can gain convenience without worry.