How Smart Home Assistants Are Killing Your Privacy

Smart Homes devices are slowly and steadily finding their place in our homes and arguably add convenience to our lives. But in addition to the price you pay acquiring these smart assistants to grant a modern feel to your home, they might also be costing your privacy.

Be it Amazon’s Echo, Google Home, Siri or Cortana integrated Harmon Kardon speakers, all of them are the same level of creepy, given how the manufacturers treat the data aggregated from these devices.

These devices listen to you, store your data and let prying ears into your house and private life.

Apart from that, there are added disadvantages that range from someone else using your smart home assistant to order things to a hacker listening to your confidential talks and gaining access to data stored on your smart assistant servers.

The Privacy Paradox

Per se, tomorrow a government employee walks into your house and asks you to allow him to place a few bugs inside, I’m pretty sure you’d be taken aback and will resultantly ask him to politely (or not) leave the premises, won’t you?

Growing up, the idea of privacy was heavily ingrained in our minds — so much so kids weren’t allowed to eavesdrop on conversations that the adults were having.

But surprisingly, people don’t seem as concerned when technology-laden devices are poking holes in their privacy bubble.

Allow me to give you a little walk-through into what these smart home devices are capable of and how that can endanger your privacy.

They Listen, Record and Can be Hacked

They’re Listening, Always

Smart Home devices are always listening to you. It’s accurate that they’re activated to respond only once they are given a specific command or ‘wake word’, but if they weren’t always listening how would they know when that command is said?

While these devices are always listening, but (hopefully) don’t store everything they hear. But, given their listening capabilities, a hacker can potentially force his way into your in-house conversations via the Smart Home assistant.

Is that dangerous?Not unless you’re talking about something confidential or sharing sensitive information. But the bigger question is: Do you want someone listening at all?

They’re Dumb, But Come With Storage

These Smart Assistants aren’t exactly as smart by themselves — more like dumb paperweights. Once they listen to your query, they transmit the voice command to Amazon/Google/Microsoft servers, which are sitting somewhere far away from your physical location and are also the real brains.

In addition to returning results for your queries, these servers store your queries in their database, against your account — which is apparently used by the company to train their AI to serve user needs better.

Leaving their business interests aside, even if I choose to agree that training their AI is the reason all these queries are saved on the respective company servers, leaving your information on the servers can be damaging too.

They Can’t Identify You and Are a Security Risk

Users can view and delete their queries saved against their account, that said, let’s bring back the hacker into this conversation.

If someone were to gain access to your account, which will probably have sensitive information saved, it won’t lead to anything that’ll bring a smile on your face.

Currently, these Smart Home Assistants aren’t even well-trained to identify its user’s voice and that might result in anyone being able to use them while you’re away — be it your friends pranking you and making a buy in your name, or your little ones demanding Alexa to supply them with the latest toy.

Feeding the Advertisers as well as a Potentially Totalitarian State

For the Mad Men

You must have seen advertisements about ‘cheap flight tickets’ popping up on your browser screen, no matter which website you visit after you booked or checked out flight tickets.

Smart Home Assistants carry forward this practice and record the ambient noise while receiving a command.

This ambient noise can reveal and record a lot of information ranging from what’s the name of your children or your dog to what’s playing on your TV at that moment — depicting what you like to watch — or your conversation on the phone while some other family member uses the Assistant.

That’s a goldmine of data received by these big tech companies which help them target ads to your Google ID and they certainly aren’t letting that go.

Don’t be surprised if you start receiving ads about a Carribean cruise after you had a conversation about that with your friend when Alexa is recording in the background.

Big Brother Might Start Watching Soon 

Smart Home Assistants aren’t yet that common in our homes, especially in developing countries but as soon as they are and that day isn’t far, masses can also expect surveillance of their devices in case you’re a suspect (or maybe even if you’re not).

Telling you that surveillance is very real shouldn’t take you by surprise — the NSA have been doing it and so are government organisations in countries like Canada, Australia, New Zealand and UK.

Recently, US Police sought the assistance of Amazon Echo in a murder case and such instances can become commonplace and legal in the future.

Many people argue that law enforcement can be allowed to interfere with our privacy because that’s to safeguard us against threats. But the bigger question remains — who is to safeguard us from the people surveilling on us? Who keeps tabs on them? And who ascertains that the same technique isn’t used by a hacking organisation to gather information about an individual or company?

As much of a dystopian dream that this might look like, I encourage you to give it a thought yourself and also read 1984 (George Orwell) if you haven’t already.

Undoubtedly, these smart home devices are enhancing our lives, and I certainly cannot persuade you to or not use the new tech — that’s totally your decision. But this added convenience might come at a very big price — the consequence of which you might not yet understand.

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