Are smart home speakers listening more than you realize?

Are smart home speakers listening more than you realize?


More than 40 million homes now have one of those hi-tech home assistant devices like the Echo, Google Home or Apple HomePod.

It’s listening all of the time, but do you really know what it’s doing with that information? This is all fairly new technology that many are still figuring out its limitations and its impact on your privacy.

John Verdi works with the Future of Privacy Forum think tank in Washington, D.C.

“It’s natural for consumers to ask questions when they take a product that has a microphone and camera, and they put it in some of the most intimate areas of their home—maybe their living room, bedroom, kitchen,” Verdi said.

Verdi says for the most part, each device only records and saves the conversation audio and transcript while you are intentionally interacting with the device.  That conversation and data about that conversation are uploaded to the respective servers, encrypted.  

“All of these devices usually listen on a very short loop — usually a few seconds. What they’re listening for there is the wake word. They don’t go back and harvest the data preceding the wake word,” Verdi said.

There are still a lot of questions about just how protected the encrypted info really is.

A 2015 murder trial in Arkansas put the issue in the spotlight. James Bates was charged with first-degree murder in the 2015 death of Victor Collins after a night of drinking and watching football. Collins was found floating face-down in Bates’ hot tub, police said.

The prosecutor on the case went after recorded information on an Amazon Echo device that was in the home at the time of the alleged crime.  Amazon fought off the request until Bates said he would voluntarily turn it over.  The case was later dismissed.

While the information is encrypted, in the case of Google Home and Amazon Echo devices, that information call all be linked back to an individual account.

One of the primary uses for the stored information is used for advertising and product placement.

“For example, if you ask for information about a particular topic using a digital assistant, that company might suggest books or movies or products to you on their services that you would then want to be interested in,” Verdi explained.

The potential for this technology to evolve in its capabilities has others concerned.

Recently, Consumer Watchdog vocalized the organization’s concerns about a pending patent for Amazon, showing the company could instruct the Echo device to listen for words 24/7, transcribe that conversation and use that info to sell the device’s user a related product.

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