Is Your Home Listening to You?

When I was a teenager, science fiction books envisioned a future where people talked to their home to take care of mundane tasks. For somebody willing to spend the money on new appliances and devices that future is here today.

Just consider the Amazon Alexa voice assistant, which is installed in the largest number of devices. GE has built Alexa into its new stoves, refrigerators, wall ovens, dishwashers, washers and dryers, and air conditioners. Samsung has built Alexa into refrigerators, washers, dryers, air conditioners, and vacuums. Alexa is built into smart light bulbs, smart wall plugs, televisions, thermostats, smart door locks, security cameras, speakers, and numerous other devices. The chips and/or software to add Alexa to devices are getting cheap and it shouldn’t be long until the app is built into most electronics you might buy.

The convenience of talking to home devices is not without a cost, and companies like Amazon, Apple, and Google are listening to you through the devices. Like other voice assistants, Alexa listens all of the time waiting for a ‘wake word’ that activates the app. There are major privacy and security concerns related to the constant listening. We have to trust the company controlling the device not to listen to us all of the time because there is nothing stopping them from doing so.

Amazon swears they don’t listen or record except for a short period of time after the wake word is spoken. They also swear that they only preserve those recordings in an effort to improve Alexa’s responses to questions. If you are going to use Alexa in your home, you are trusting that Amazon is telling the truth. Back in 2017 Samsung got a huge black eye when they were unable to make that promise concerning their smart TVs.

The other big concern is hacking. There is zero chance that all of the companies making devices that include a voice assistant have iron-clad security. While Amazon really might not be listening to you, a hacker will surely be willing to do so.

To make matters even more uncomfortable, a lot of lawyers and privacy experts believe that if a person knowingly installs a device that listens and transmits information to a third party, that person has waived their Fourth Amendment privacy rights and any rights granted by the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. The concept has not yet been challenged in a court, but if it’s true, then people have no recourse against Amazon or anybody else using the information gathered from a voice assistant device.

My house has four Amazon Echos that we bought when the devices first hit the market. They are convenient and I use them to listen to music, check the weather or news, check the hours at stores or restaurants, and to make the occasional reminder in the middle of the night. My family has gotten uncomfortable with being listened to all of the time and we now unplug the devices when we aren’t using them. This kills all of the spontaneous uses of the devices, but for now, that feels safer than being listened to.

I’m going to be leery about buying any new household appliance that can listen to me. If I can’t disable the listening function, I’m not going to buy the device. It’s impossible to feel secure with these devices right now. It’s impossible to take the word of big company that such devices are safe. You only have to look at the current experiences with the hacking of Ring cameras to know that smart home devices are currently anything but safe.

Small ISPs have never worried much about the devices that people hang off their networks. ISPs provide the bandwidth pipe, and how people use data has not been a concern for the ISP. However, that is slowly changing. I have a lot of clients that are now offering smart thermostats, smart security systems, and other smart devices as a way to boost revenue. ISPs need to be careful of any claims they make to customers. Somebody advertising safety for a smart security system might have liability if that system is hacked and the customer exploited.

Maybe I’m being overly cautious, but the idea of somebody I don’t know being able to listen to everything said in my house makes me uncomfortable. As an industry person who has been following the history of IoT devices, I’m even more uncomfortable since it’s now obvious that most smart home devices have lousy security. If you don’t think Amazon is listening to you, I challenge you to activate Alexa and say something vile about Jeff Bezos, then see how much longer it takes to get your next Amazon shipment. Go ahead, I dare you!

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