If you own an Alexa or a Siri, you’ve assigned a value to your privacy.
It’s not exactly a revelation that every time a device progresses to make our lives a little easier, it does so by culling more information about us. What was once a little spooky and creepy is now an expected application. Search Google for “American Airlines,” and you’ll get a result (visible only to you) that shows an upcoming flight on the carrier.
Talk about joining a gym with your buddy and thirty minutes later, Facebook will populate your newsfeed with Equinox ads because it was listening to your entire conversation … and taking notes.
So while companies are emerging offering “sweeps” of your home for listening devices:
It makes makes far more sense to focus on the ones we’ve brought home and unpacked.
As we allow these “listening” devices, such as Amazon Echo and the newly announced Apple HomePod to invade our homes and lives for the sake of hands-free music and home automation, it’s important to remember that they’re always listening. While they might only respond to a “Hey Siri” or “Alexa!” it behooves those concerned with privacy to think of them as quiet strangers sitting in the far corner of a room taking notes. Sure, they may help you order diapers, but what are they doing the rest of the time?
Privacy expert Bob Sullivan, speaking to Wavy.com, states:
“You invite a gadget into your home that can record you and then transmit something you say into your home off to a third party. There are two problems with that, one is what they call the blank check problem. It might seem very innocent to tell Alexa today that you care about the weather, but you never know where that data’s going to end up.
“Somebody could say, ‘Hey, Bob asks for the weather every day at 5:45 a.m.’ That means we know when Bob leaves his house. Maybe that means this is a good time to sell Bob things. Maybe that means this is a good time to [burglarize] Bob’s house.”
Honestly, if you’ve ponied up for the conveniences these products offer, you don’t care. But to answer the question, they’re like ships without a port, listening, but not sending the audio anywhere until triggered by a wake word.
Sure, you can say you care, but unless you’re exhaustively studying the terms and conditions of every update, then proactively removing the software and hardware you take issue with, you don’t care. Not enough, anyway.
If you’re looking for a silver lining (really more like cold comfort), would you relax knowing that this has always been the case with your web movements, it’s just that now it’s acting on your voice? That’s just about the best reassurance there is these days.
But you know what? That little talking cylinder is always listening to you. And not just listening, but recording and saving many of the things you say. Should you freak out? Not if you’re comfortable with Google and Amazon logging your normal web activity, which they've done for years. Hell, many other sites have also done it for years. Echo and Home simply continue the trend of saving a crumb trail of queries, except with snippets of your voice.
As of now, the only info these devices send to external servers for study and documentation are those that come after the established “wake words,” like the aforementioned, “Hey Siri.”
But as these things get smarter, and as people get more comfortable with a robot eavesdropper, expect that condition to change in a New York minute.
Ready for some more bad news?
The levels of integrity and privacy that Amazon and such maintain are kept high because, well, they want to keep the public’s trust for obvious reasons. But you know who doesn’t really want your trust?
Right now, there’s little indication that these listening devices (your phone, TV, Bluetooth speakers, home assistants, Nests, and a billion others) offer varying, but reassuring, levels of encryption. But the thing about being spied on is that you almost never know it’s happened until it’s over.
This prognosis no doubt reads as alarmist, but the fact is that we’re amidst a very real discussion of hackers influencing diplomatic correspondence and elections. The conversation isn’t about right or wrong, but rather what’s possible.
As such, we’re getting far more questions than answers.
And while we’d all like to believe that we’re living in a world of righteousness, we know better than that. We know that every time a computer reads our email, calendars, or texts, we’re making our lives a little less secure.
The question is, with the benefits of these machines do you really care?