“Alexa, turn off the lights.”
“Hey Google, lock the doors.”
How many of you have asked your own smart devices to do those things? Or perhaps you’ve been at a friend’s house and they want to show off what they can do with a simple voice command such as that?
Some of you are dubious on letting smart devices into your house to listen and to do simple tasks for you. But perhaps some of you are deep in the process of outfitting your entire house to be “smart” as we speak.
According to some estimates, in 2019, smart home device sales grew by over 20%. Regardless of where you’re at on the spectrum, smart devices are here to stay.
If you’ve taken the plunge or are thinking about it, security is (or at least should be) at the top of your mind.
Associated Press and ABC News contributor Anick Jesdanun wrote how to keep your home safe while incorporating these devices.
Did someone invite a spy into your home over the holidays? Maybe so, if a friend or family member gave you a voice-controlled speaker or some other smart device.
It's easy to forget, but everything from internet-connected speakers with voice assistants such as Amazon's Alexa to television sets with built-in Netflix can be always listening — and sometimes watching, too. As with almost all new technology, installing such devices means balancing privacy risks with the conveniences they offer.
The research firm IDC estimates worldwide shipments of 815 million smart speakers, security cameras and other devices in 2019, up 23% from 2018. Many of the sales are for gifts.
You could sidestep the risks altogether by returning the devices right away. But if you decide to keep them — and the artificial intelligence behind them — there are a few things you can do to minimize their eavesdropping potential.
THE SPEAKERS LISTEN ... AND WATCH
Smart speakers such as Amazon's Echo and Google Home let you check weather and appointments with simple voice commands. Fancier versions come with cameras and screens.
Many of these devices listen constantly for commands and connect to corporate servers to carry them out. Typically, they will ignore private chatter and transmit sound recordings only when you trigger the device, such as by pressing a button or speaking a command phrase like "OK Google.”
Some gadgets also have a mute button to disable the microphones completely.
But there's no easy way for consumers to verify those safeguards. In one case, the Alexa assistant in an Echo device misheard background conversation as a command to send the chatter to an acquitance — and so it did.
One more catch: Voice commands sent over the internet are typically stored indefinitely and may include conversations in the background. They can be sought in lawsuits and investigations.
Reputable companies let you review and delete your voice history, Amazon now lets you request automatic deletions after three or 18 months — but you need to set that up, and there’s no option to keep Amazon from saving your command history at all.
Until recently, tech companies allowed employees and contractors to review the voice interactions for quality control — and some of those details leaked. Following a backlash, many companies are at least making it clearer and easier to opt out of human review. Pay attention to your choices.
If you have kids, set up a passcode for shopping if your speaker allows it. Otherwise, it can be child's play for a kid to order toys and other goodies through Alexa.
As for those screen models, many also have cameras for video chats. When you’re not using the device, consider turning it around to face the wall, especially in the bedroom and other private settings. Or stick a bandage or some tape over the camera. It shouldn’t be recording, but why tempt fate?