Are Your Smart Devices Listening?

Some are, some aren't...

If your answer is yes, that’s at least half true. Devices with smart assistants—Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant and others—must always be listening for the wake-up word, their name. They are only actively listening when triggered by that wake-up word. There are also devices that are “always on” when turned on; baby monitors are a good example. In addition, many other devices now have microphones that have the ability to listen when enabled. Users need to be aware of differences and ensure that settings are set to their privacy requirements. This infographic from the Future of Privacy Forum explains the issues clearly.

It’s not just the smart assistant devices themselves. A recent article says there are now about 60,000 devices from 7,400 different brands that work with Amazon’s Alexa. Of course, Siri and Google Assistant work with smart phones, which makes them very popular. However, Alexa retains a clear lead in terms of devices that make up the smart home. Don’t let that term mislead you, though. Alexa-powered devices are also found in cars and children’s toys or games as well as an increasing number of wearable devices. If you want an overview of the most popular smart assistants, here is a good one. They all work similarly, so I’ll focus on Alexa and try not to tell you more than you really want to know.

While there are instances of devices listening to conversations, they seemingly have been the result of misunderstood commands and the makers have fixed the issues as they’ve been raised. The spate of recent articles about Alexa and others has mostly focused on the fact that they are recording and saving—anonymously—interactions with the device. The recorded interactions are used to “train” the devices to respond better, a necessary feature of Artificial Intelligence. This infographic gives an example of how AI training is done and demonstrates why it is necessary.

Voice activated devices like Alexa offer many benefits as I explained in my recent article on smart homes. They are especially important to people with limited mobility or medical issues. All of us should carefully consider which benefits make our lives more convenient and safer and use devices and services that provide them. Always remember to change any manufacturer-supplied password immediately and examine the security settings to see what is necessary and what you might want to turn off.

Many users find recording unpalatable and would like to erase recorded conversations on devices they now use. Parents, in particular, may want to perform regular house-cleaning chores on their children’s devices. Here’s an article that tell you how to do both on many of the most popular devices.

It’s not a bad idea to review your Security settings anyway to ensure a good balance between functionality and privacy on each device.


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