Once upon a time, smart home devices required dedicated hubs and a unique kind of wireless network to operate their various lights, sensors, and switches. With the popularity of digital assistants such as Alexa, Siri, and the Google Assistant, though, it was only a matter of time before they became a dominant force in smart home technology. While dedicated device hubs still exist, a significant portion of smart home devices are now designed and marketed to work with popular digital assistants and devices such as the Google Home and Amazon Echo.
This brings a considerable amount of convenience to smart homes, since instead of having to use control apps or other means to interact with hubs you can simply ask Google or Alexa to do what you want to do. Some people consider this problematic, however; after all, just how much are Google and Alexa listening to you? Is your smart home spying on you without your knowledge? Let’s find out.
Your Home Has Ears
Devices such as the Google Home and Echo can do a lot of things, but their general design is kind of simple; they are essentially internet-connected speakers with microphones. This means that they could theoretically listen to anything that you say, and given the way that they function, they are actually listening all of the time. The devices passively listen for their “wake words”, the “Hey Google” or “Alexa!” that activate their features and get them ready to receive instructions.
This leads some people to wonder whether these devices are spying on them, listening to conversations for words or phrases that could then be used for marketing or more sinister purposes. This ranges from people who think that the devices are building targeted ads off of the things that they say, to those who believe that the devices record what you say and turn incriminating speech over to the police or government. None of this is true, but that doesn’t mean that some of it couldn’t come to pass in the future. It also doesn’t mean that there aren’t some other potentially problematic activities going on.
Is Your Smart Home Spying?
Having a computer process the things that you say and convert them into marketing (or flag them as “problematic” and turn them over to some sinister government agency) is programmatically intensive. That’s why digital assistants primarily use wake words to activate their language processing; it’s much easier to listen for a few specific words before diving deep into language processing. The problem is that if the assistant hears something close enough to its wake word, then it will start recording for processing even if you didn’t actually try to engage the device, and that recording can pick up background conversations as well.
There is some concern that certain patents and algorithm updates could result in more targeted use of recorded data, allowing companies to pick out keywords from discussions for marketing purposes. It’s worth noting that not all patents actually make it into commercial products, especially given the spotlight that’s being shined on data leaks and consumer privacy in recent years. While these patents definitely show that Amazon and other companies have considered how this sort of data harvesting would work, the sort of large-scale harvesting for marketing purposes that some people fear is (at least currently) not actively out in the wild on these devices.