Friday June 30, 2017

Home Safe Home

You may be hearing buzz about “digital assistants,” those voice-activated devices like Google Home, Amazon Echo and Apple’s (forthcoming) HomePod that play music, change the temperature on your smart thermostat, switch lights off and provide amusing responses to queries like “why are fire trucks red?” They’re fun to play with, maybe even useful and everywhere, but they’ve also been called “the Trojan horses of the smart home.” So what’s the deal? Are these things safe? What do they mean for privacy?

From what we can tell, digital assistants aren’t much worse privacy-wise than our web browsers. Alexa and Google both save your audio search history to improve speed and accuracy of future searches, allow you to quickly revisit answers to questions you’ve already asked and better decipher your vocal nuances. And just like our web browsers, there are generally settings to turn this off and/or delete your search history.  

For voice-activation to work, these contraptions do have to listen in on your household conversation, but they don’t record until they hear their particular cue word (e.g. “Alexa”). And they encrypt audio zipping from your home to their data centers to prevent malicious (or recreational) eavesdropping.

Regardless, this still makes us just a smidge nervous. Does our dubiety doom us to an assistant-less life? The folks at Wired magazine offer the following advice:

 “If you're really freaked out by the concept of something always listening to you in your home, your best bet is a push-button voice assistant. Things like the Amazon Tap, the Alexa remote for Fire TV, or your phone with its ‘always listening’ mode turned off.”

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