Technology is becoming smarter and more integrated into our lives. Each year seems to bring new smart devices and apps into our homes, from thermostats to dishwashers to TVs.
Recently, a wave of ransomware attacks has put both large and small entities at risk of being overwhelmed by the reality of the modern internet age. Companies as large as Disney and individuals just like you and me have had data stolen and then been threatened with its release or deletion unless a sum of money is paid to the hacker. The vulnerabilities in security across the board have come into stark reality with this latest wave of attacks.
In addition, recent national political events have thrust the importance of audio security back into the spotlight. Incidentally, it was forty-four years ago on May 17th, 1973 that North Carolina Senator Sam Ervin presided over the first of the televised Watergate hearings. That scandal and eventual fall of a U.S. President was facilitated by a listening device. Back then, it took a major act in order to commit to listening in, involving someone physically getting into a space and then coming back to retrieve the information in hard copy. In the event that recordings of the current political scandal came to light, it could be a massive game changer for the outcome today, just as it was forty-four years ago.
Today all it takes is a smartphone or smart hub device for covert listening to occur – no tapes to set up or retrieve. No one has to sneak into our homes and offices to spy on us. We’re literally inviting these electronics into our houses and workplaces with open arms, but are we thinking of the potential nefarious applications that they could be used for?
Popular listening apps and devices
There is an ever-growing number of listening apps and devices that are being thrust into the marketplaces. They offer us space age, state of the art technological magic. We’re no longer content with things happening with the touch of a button – we want them to happen with just the sound of our voice. From the car to the kitchen, home and office listening devices are gaining traction in leaps and bounds.
Here are a few of the most popular.
The Echo and Alexa - Amazon
Amazon’s Alexa is the dominant listening app in the market. Integrated into all kinds of home life functionality, Alexa can do everything from ordering toilet paper to playing music to unlocking doors. These are features that make life exponentially easier, and the popularity of Alexa and the Echo are driven by the growing comfort level that people are gaining with smart technology as well as the truly functional nature of these devices. The Echo actually works, and it does the job well.
Alexa awakens whenever it hears, or *thinks* it hears someone say “Alexa,” but remember, it’s technically ALWAYS listening. It’s merely waiting for its “wake” word!
Google Home - Google
The big guy on the block, Google, has put its hands firmly into the market of smart hubs with Google Home. Google Home doesn’t offer the purchasing integration power that Amazon does, but it does offer integration with a wide range of home devices, including smart stoves and smart door locks. Google Home starts listening when it hears or *thinks* it hears the word “Google”. Incidentally, you can actually go back and listen do your own voice as recorded by Google Now voice searches across your devices by logging into your Google account.
Siri – Apple
One of the coolest features of the newest generations of iDevices are the way that they respond to your voice when you say “Hey Siri”. The detailed nature of voice search is enticing, especially when you’ve got your hands on the keyboard or the steering wheel. It’s a functionality that works in real time and in real world situations. However, it’s important to note that Siri does keep a recording of your inquiries, keeping your device requests with device IDs for six months and the voice recording for up to 18 months. This information isn’t kept in your phone or iPad, it’s sent home to Apple for storage.
Cortana – Microsoft
Much like the others, Cortana offers search functionality across Microsoft devices. It’s incredibly similar to Siri, Alexa, and Google, with the exception that it’s more integrated into Windows based technology of course. Like Siri, Cortana sends voice recordings back to Microsoft to be catalogued and saved, though Microsoft has not released details on how long it keeps these recordings.
What you need to know about smart listening apps and devices
A thread that you’ve probably noticed running through these devices is that they all store your voice. That storage has the potential to be hacked, and the information within it used by criminals for blackmail, fraud, or theft. Given the level of comfort and trust that most of us have with these devices, it’s reasonable to assume that personal information is being spoken around them all the time.
While Alexa, Cortana, Google Now, and Siri are all only programmed to start recording when you say specific call signs, they have the potential to be recording you much more of the time if those recording capabilities are exploited by individuals with criminal interest in doing so. The convenience that these robot assistants comes at a price – our privacy and security.
A major reason that these services keep your voice recordings for so long is that it allows them to use your idiosyncrasies to learn more about how to serve you better. It’s a necessary part of the process, providing us with the functionality that we crave. Most of us aren’t willing to give up the stellar interactions that are channeled through these magic devices just yet. People have shown again and again that they’re willing to sacrifice security in service of convenience.
There are, however, ways that you can protect yourself and still get that functionality that you crave.
- Read all user agreements
Yes, this takes a lot of time and it’s incredibly boring. Research shows that most people don’t read user agreements, but it’s not a good idea. Knowledge is power, and you want to be sure that you know where your information is going and how it’s being safeguarded.
- Use a VPN
Setting up a Virtual Private Network (VPN) can protect you when you’re on public or unsecure wifi, keeping your information secure even on your smartphone or tablet.
- Add a PIN for transactions
Alexa, for example, allows you to set up a PIN number before you order something. That way you don’t get caught in a situation where you say to your son Alex “Hey Alex, could you buy toilet paper today?” in the presence of your Amazon Echo, only to find fifty rolls of toilet paper show up on your doorstep from Amazon in a couple of days. A PIN also offers a layer of protection from hackers.
- Update software regularly
It’s easy to put off software updates, but it’s also dangerous. ALWAYS keep your software up to date. Companies are constantly closing loopholes in security, but those fixes only work if they’re installed on your device. When you’re asked to update, always do it.
- Change your settings
Some of these services actually offer you the chance to determine your voice settings. You can determine how and when your searches are saved, what words they respond to, and other privacy and security issues. Factory settings aren’t always the most secure for listening devices, so check to see what changes you can make to safeguard your information.
- Be aware of what you say
This one is incredibly personal. Your level of comfort with security and privacy is what’s going to guide how you act around it. While you don’t want to censor yourself completely, especially with home hub devices, do keep in mind that there is potential for someone to be listening. While it’s highly unlikely, it’s still possible. What you do with that information is up to you.
The threat of ransomware, hacking, and listening is real, even if the odds are small. Educate yourself about smart devices and how they might be listening, and go into this new relationship with technology with your eyes open. That’s especially true if you’re using smart devices in a business setting.
Just to give some longer-term perspective on this issue, we spoke to some tech savvy kids ages 8-12 about this listening and recording issue, describing it to them in detail. This is the next generation – one that’s grown up with technology everywhere. They didn’t bat an eye at the notion of Apple or Google or Microsoft keeping voice recordings. It’s important to keep in mind that attitudes about invasive technology are rapidly changing with each new generation. What baby boomers find overly invasive is perceived as no big deal by millennials, and will be even less of an issue for generations down the line.
At the end of the day, it seems like many of are giving up privacy in exchange for convenience. Do you use a listening app like Alexa, Siri or Cortana? What steps have you taken to protect your privacy?