The ads are slick. You talk and smart speakers with built-in artificial intelligence (AI) do everything for you. Alexa can find you the perfect recipe, change the channel on your TV, and play your favorite music. Amazon’s success with Alexa pulled Google and Apple into the game. And now traditional audio companies like JBL and Sonos have added Amazon or Google AI to their excellent sound technology.
Today the lure of smart TVs, smart homes, robotic vacuums, and delivery via drone has attracted a growing customer base. People enjoy the higher convenience and the fulfillment of science fiction dreams. Technology companies smooth the way for disparate devices to communicate. Life is good.
As with many of these smart devices, a big part of the “smart” aspect is creating software that makes the device easy to use. However, that ease often comes at a price for the user. Google and Amazon are well known for collecting and storing customer data with an evangelical zeal. And while the PR spin is that this data gives the user a better experience, the method of gathering, storing and analyzing the data is for vendor advantage, not user privacy. This is before the concern about just what the speakers hear, and therefore store.
What are the Risks?
Smart speakers are not just hardware. Understand that Amazon and Google store your voice data, encrypted, but it is still identifiable as your data. Apple replaces the user identification with a randomized number sequence so even Apple cannot identify who’s encrypted data is whose. You may be thinking, “so what?” Remember that any data requested by the government, or stolen by criminals, may include your data.
When it comes to storing the data, Amazon and Google store it indefinitely. Apple purges data every six months. You can delete the data from Amazon and Google, but you, the user, must remember to go into the settings and manually delete your data.
All of these devices can be muted. However, you have to remember to issue the mute command. And even then, they are powered on and listening. You could turn them on and off, or manually mute them, but that also defeats the immediately available functionality that is their prime selling point.
Yes, Google and many others have recorded your web life for years. There are crumbs of your online activity here and there all over the world. One increased concern is that now they have recorded your voice. Remember those movies where they steal snippets of someone’s voice to bypass security? There’s one concern. Plus, if little Alexa is listening, are you taking the time to mute her before discussing private issues like credit or banking? Yes, I could be accused of being paranoid, but in light of the large data breaches we’ve seen for years I can’t help but wonder when it will be all that recorded voice data stored with your identifier is stolen, too. Disclosure: yes, I am one of those people who has a sticky over their web cam and likes VPN software. These days I consider that prudent, not paranoid.
It is unlikely that these electronic ears would be used like a hacker wiretap to listen in real time. The larger concern is that data stored on all those servers in the Google or Amazon cloud. Your user account can be compromised and then they can see your online transactions.
Now that I’ve got you good and concerned, remember that vendors keep the reservoir of all that user data to improve their learning algorithms, analyze shopping trends and a whole host of money making data mining activities. Again, the tech big boys have done this for decades. That doesn’t make it good, but if you have a solution to better protect our online privacy you can be a gazillionaire.
What Can I Do?
Let’s talk about some steps any user can take to make smart speakers helpful, rather than intrusive.
There are remotes and apps to turn your voice assistant into a part time helper only available when you push the button to “wake” it. This is more secure than simply uttering the wake words. Each device also has a manual Mute button – again you have to remember to go push it to cut off the speaker altogether and again when you are ready to use it.
Despite settings that allow you to pause recording with Google devices (no such pause exists for Amazon), the systems don’t work without recording on. Google Home will ask you to fix some settings first – meaning go unpause recording. So, you’re back to manual deletion of your recordings.
- Mute your smart speaker when you are not in the room (or not at home.) Use the manual Mute button when you leave. I remember seeing an Internet story about a parrot who erroneously ordered things from Amazon because he kept talking to “Alexa”.
- Likewise, I wouldn’t recommend discussing sensitive issues in a room with a smart speaker. Better safe than sorry.
- Set a reminder and delete your stored data at least once every six months.
- If you have kids, teach them that smart speakers are a tool, not a toy.
Embracing new technology is a good thing. I’m not suggesting you throw out your smartphone. I do believe that we should spend more time making smart users. How many people do you know who use technology every day, but have no idea what the device is doing? We do not all need to be Bill Gates + Michael Dell. What we do need to do is understand some basics. When you are ready to purchase a new device take some time at the Genius Bar, or the Try It Out equivalent, and talk to the staff about what the device does, what applications it needs, how to run the basic functions (including backups or other maintenance.) Just like comparison shopping before buying a new washing machine, understand the general features and know what you will do with the thing before you buy it.
I can’t say that I do not have occasional dreams where the world has turned into a Matrix/Terminator horror; after all I do use that VPN. But technology is creating some truly magical devices that simplify life, and apps that make life more fun (the iPad jigsaw app is great in waiting rooms.) As we do with food, it is time for people to be conscious consumers of technology. Know what it does, understand how you will use it, and buy it for a good impact.
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