Are Voice-Enabled Technologies Safe for Your Home?
With the arrival of voice-enabled technologies like Amazon Alexa–enabled devices (Echo, Tap, Echo Dot) and the latest Google Assistant–enabled product, Google Home, getting access to what you want is getting easier. Want to hear a song? Ask Alexa to play it. Want to know the tallest mountain in the world? Ask Google Assistant. If you need more copy paper for your office, Alexa can have it sent to you immediately. All you have to do is ask.
But when we invite voice-enabled technologies into our homes and offices, we are also bringing corporations and their workforce into our personal spaces—and there are unintended consequences.
One of the earliest backlashes against voice enabled technology came in the late 1990s with the introduction of the Furby. You remember the Furby, a small furry animal that looked like the gremlins from the eponymous movies but also had a computer chip that allowed them to “learn” language. Millions of people thought the Furby was just a cool new toy. More scientifically minded critics, including several government agencies, saw it as an invasion of privacy and a threat to the national security of the United States. Why? Because a Furby listened to what was being said and learned how to talk based on what it heard. Some folks at those agencies worried the fuzzy toys would repeat classified information, and they were banned from government offices.
Fast forward to early 2015, when TVs were becoming more than just a passive screen used to watch shows and movies that were pushed to them via media providers. Televisions were becoming smarter—for the benefit of the consumer, of course. But televisions, no longer passive, were also listening to the conversations that you were having. Certain Samsung TVs had a voice recognition feature that recorded conversations and transmitted that voice information to a third party. As a result, many businesses and consumers turned off this feature because of the potential risk of information leaving the confines of the space where the TVs were located. In fact, this was an entirely valid concern as many of the TVs were being used as replacements for older projectors in conference rooms. But how many consumers never realized that their TVs were listening to them or, if they did, bothered to take the time to figure out how to turn off the eavesdropping feature?
When we welcome the convenience of voice-enabled technologies into our homes and businesses, we are also giving up degrees of privacy. For connected devices to work, they have to be in constant communication with the service provider’s cloud. When you ask a device or service to complete an action on your behalf, the request goes from the device in your home or business to the service provider’s cloud for processing, with subsequent instructions for action to be taken directed to other devices. This includes simple requests such as turning lights on or off or adjusting the climate control. The scary truth is that cloud services are not secure by default. Hackers can access information processed and stored within the cloud (more on that in a future article). Once they do that, they can access and control your Internet–enabled devices.
What we must remember as we adopt voice-enabled technologies and future convenience technologies is that humans make mistakes. And it is these same naturally flawed humans that develop the gadgets we love in our lives at work and at home. Devices are not perfect. After all, we made them.
So what can you do at home and in your business to help make sure your information is being used as you intended?
- Track changes to privacy policies and service enhancements of the products you use in your home and business. At any time, a company can update its service to start capturing more information than that which you were originally aware.
- Because you can never know if a technology is behaving as it was intended, if you have something really important to discuss, create a room that is essentially technology free to have sensitive discussions. And don’t forget to leave your phones outside too.
Once you understand and are comfortable with what your connected devices are capturing in your home and business, go ahead and have some fun with the technology. Need a laugh? Ask Alexa to tell you a Chuck Norris joke.