Why smart speakers might be a really dumb choice

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Image credit: Who is Danny / Shutterstock.com

Smart speakers are becoming ubiquitous. They were among the most sought after gifts of the festive season.

The problem is not only that smart speakers can be hacked in an amusing ‘Alexa, tell the family about the new Whopper from Burger King’ way but that it gets more sinister. Smart speakers, and most smart devices, record everything that is going on.

The upward trend for smart devices is reflected at this year’s CES event. While Business Insider Intelligence believes that by 2023 smart home devices will exceed one billion units, many companies at the event are working to support and expand the burgeoning ecosystem.

The next stop for smart devices is – naturally – the office, then the car, that arena that is being targeted by any high-tech company worth its salt. That space between home and work that will soon (one day) be free to be filled by games or work or playing with your phone in some form.

On one level this is great.

On others it is a potential nightmare.

We know that smart home devices record everything and we know they ‘misunderstand’ commands. So now that privacy is one of the greatest concerns of the moment, a device that records everything will not be acceptable.

This situation is made much worse because of the phenomenon that we had almost forgotten, the BYOD trend. Large companies have policies covering what you can take to work and how you can use it. The problem, according to research by GetApp Lab, is that 58% of smaller companies do not have such policies.

Imagine having a device that was recording everything that went on in your company. The smart speaker that sits on your desk recording the gossip, the smart TV in the boardroom recording the real financial position and real strategy and the smartwatch recording which clients you were visiting.

Then imagine if you could hack those devices, as a competitor, financial regulator or common or garden bad guy.

We know that anything that is connected is hackable yet we still, for some insane reason, merrily take hackable devices into every corner of our lives.

Apologies. Of course it will all be fine and of course it won’t happen to you.

So that’s all right then.

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4 Comments

  1. “We know that smart home devices record everything”

    No we don’t. Because that’s not true.

    Amazon Echos, for instance, listen for the wake-word “Alexa” & only transmit / record / analyse what comes after that. They’re not doing always-on speech recognition. Your premise is wrong. Bear in mind that Amazon licenses the technology to hundreds of firms, so their engineers will be checking it too.

    The most bizarre part of this post is its focus on things like smart speakers, rather than the far more common devices with microphones that people have around them: phones, PCs, headphones, webcams, door-entry phones & so on.

    Do you know all the apps on your smartphone which have access to the mic API? If you’re that concerned about security from recording device, do you fully power-down all your devices during a meeting? Leave them in a pocket or audio-absorbing bag?

    Or are you just arbitrarily worrying about one, new, class of audio-powered device?

  2. And are we sure that smart home devices, or any others, can’t be ‘made’ to listen to everything? The point is that if we take connected devices to work we should assume they are vulnerable, not assume we have nothing to worry about.

  3. I suppose there’s a difference between ‘listening to everything’ and ‘recording everything’. I’m perfectly prepared to believe that smart speakers don’t start to process information in any way till they hear ‘Siri’ or ‘Alexa’ or whatever… that said, it doesn’t sound like it would be absolutely the most challenging hack..

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