Privacy in the Home

Digital Privacy in the Home

Do you ever wonder what our smart speakers are listening to?  Many of us have them in every room: kitchen, living room, study, bedroom…

The answer is that they listen to everything.    Not just us setting a timer for the potatoes or playing radio 2 for the cat, but to everything around the home; our private conversations, watching Eastenders, clatters of crockery, every crash, bang and wallop – all because they continually need to monitor for their ‘wake-word’: “OK Google”, “Alexa”, “Hey Siri”… microphone ears always pricked to determine if it is just that.

Known problems

Using the popular Amazon Alexa here as an example (same goes for all digital assistants:  Microsoft Cortana, Apple Siri, Google Nest, annoying Bixby) occasionally she makes mistakes, thinking we have summoned her into action – followed by recording what comes next to send up to Alexa’s big brain in the sky.

This is necessary to know what to do about it – turn on the lights, play music, switch on the camera to see who is at the door – she must sometimes lift her virtual eyebrows in surprise at what she hears.  Occasionally perhaps enough to make a sailor blush.  

How does that work?

These sounds are sent from Alexa over WiFi to our broadband router. From there they travel up the internet onto the powerful Amazon servers in ‘the cloud’ which work out what to do and how to reply.  Then the process reverses – all the way back to Alexa on the sideboard to tell her how to act and what to say  …  and all within the blink of an ‘i’.

Big Deal, or No Big Deal?

So should we be concerned?  Well that depends.   Broadly not really at all!   Unless we’re planning the next “Hatton Garden” burglary within Alexa’s earshot, she hears billions of unnecessary sounds each and every day.  Her virtual eyebrows don’t even twitch.

Still, all this data is kept and used by Amazon to continually help make her increasingly smarter. And maybe it’s wise to occasionally be aware of these recordings: from singing in the bath to reading out credit card numbers over the phone.

Privacy options

If you have concerns about privacy, there are several things that can be done.

For a start the microphone can be turned off. Typically, a simple mute button.  But of course, that is not ideal as we need to press it again prior to each task we ask her to perform.

Why did she say/do that!?

Want to know more about what she (thinks she) just heard?  We can get an idea by simply asking her. Try this now:

“Alexa, what time is it?”
(wait for the reply)
“Alexa, why did you do that?”

In fact, Alexa can be asked and will tell you in all cases – same goes for every instruction that we make.

And plenty more privacy settings beyond still …

Finally for now it is worth knowing we can selectively delete recordings afterwards: “Alexa, delete what I just said”, “Alexa, delete what I said today” … even “Alexa, delete everything I’ve ever said” …  

Digital Security

Here at Everything IT digital security is our top priority. If you need any further advice, from smart speakers, phone assistants to privacy online – feel free to ring our friendly team.  

“Alexa – call Everything IT – on 01225 434343 … “

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