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How Safe Is Your Smart Speaker?

Ever since the Amazon Echo popped up in our homes in 2015 there have been rumbling concerns about security. A belief that surely, a device that listens to every word, just waiting for a command, could potentially be used to spy on our every conversation.

I’ll level with you, I shared that concern. I felt there was something very “Big Brother” about an extra pair of ears, sitting on my kitchen top, listening everything I had to say. What “Big Brother” would want to do with my discussions about what to have for tea and arguments about washing up is another question entirely.

Two years down the line, I now understand a bit more about the Echo, its Smart-Speaker friends and how secure they’re information actually is. Plus, I know some easy steps YOU can take to protect your information.

So, first, is Alexa always listening? Short answer: No. Long answer (and sorry to disappoint the countless alarmist, click-bait bloggers out there) Alexa (and Google Home) only listens to your conversations after the wake word, which can be whatever you wish, is uttered.

“Both Google and Amazon are very clear that they do not record any ambient conversations that are within range of their Smart-Speaker’s microphone.”

Both Google and Amazon are very clear that they do not record any ambient conversations that are within range of their Smart-Speaker’s microphone. Google says its device listens in short bursts for the wake word, promptly deleting any data it collects whilst Amazon make similar claims in its Alexa FAQ doc. (You can read that here). Once the wake word is detected the audio that follows (and a few seconds before) is streamed to the cloud, in encrypted form, where it can be processed.

If you want to see what conversations have been recorded via your device then there is a full list of questions, commands and sweet nothings you may have whispered into your Alexa’s ear within the App on your phone. You can even delete your history here if you wish – although this will inhibit your devices ability to learn from previous interactions. In other words: Your smart speaker won’t be quite as smart.

So, if Amazon and Google aren’t spying on us, is anyone else? Short answer, maybe. Long answer, and don’t panic, these devices are still incredibly safe but only as safe as any device that can record data and is connected to the internet can be. Just as your mobile phone camera or your laptop microphone has the potential to be vulnerable to hackers, so is your Amazon Alexa. In fact Smart Speakers would appear more secure against such attacks with a report from MWR Info Security suggesting their main vulnerability would be from physical tampering.

It COULD happen but it’s very very unlikely. As for the idea that Amazon or Google are using your ambient conversations to directly target you with advertising? The risks of giant fines and lack of consumer confidence would far outway any benefit they would gain from hearing you talk about your prefered brand of dishwasher tablet. Not to mention streaming, collecting and processing all that data from every user would be a near-impossible task— its pure conspiracy theory.

Still feeling a little paranoid?
Ok, here’s a few simple security tricks that you could employ to make the sure FBI aren’t listening in to the conversations you have with your dog.

  1. Mute Your Mic.
    Alexa is pretty good at listening. If you are unlucky enough to have a friend or a pet by the same name you’ll know that she “wakes” at the merest mention of her name, even in a sea of other noise. If you are worried that you may anciently invoke a function then you can always mute its microphone. Just press the handy ‘Microphone Off’ button at the top of the device. Obviously, adding a button to a button-less technology isn’t ideal and limits Alexa’s functionality BUT it can be useful if you want to feel extra-secure when you are not at home.
  2. 2) Don’t Call Alexa, Alexa.
    One of the cool features of the Alexa system is the ability to change the wake word to whatever you want. It’s not just fun to wake up to the latest news from your Flash Briefing with the command “Moonpants, whats going on today” it’s also a layer of security meaning that not just anyone can walk up and have their wicked way with your device.
  3. Add a PIN.
    Like the novelty and freedom of shopping by voice but want an added layer of security? Although not featured as default, it’s pretty easy to set up a voice security PIN for your device. Head to “Settings” and then “Voice Purchasing” in your Alexa App and pick your four-digit PIN you will be required to say aloud with every purchase.
  4. Check your “Drop-In” Settings.
    Earlier this year the Amazon introduced a feature called “Drop In” where your Echo could be used as an intercom system/phone. It allows the devices to connect automatically to another Alexa enabled device, once permission has been granted, allowing conversations between users. Currently, once you have paired with someone they can then “drop in” at any time, without you having to accept the call. You can change your preferences from this under Settings in the Alexa App allowing only specific devices to “Drop In” to your own Echo.

Fell better now? Good. The above tips are good if you are feeling a little paranoid but, for me, some of them pair back the usability of your Amazon Smart-Speaker much more than any real risk involved. As with any internet-enabled device there is a slight security risk behind using it but for the most part, common sense and sensible use of password security can keep you and your household safe.

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