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Smart Home Device Eavesdropping is Too Common

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A family in Portland, Oregon was relaxing at home one evening when they received a call from one of the husband’s co-workers. The caller immediately said, “Unplug your Alexa device right now, you’re being hacked.”

Apparently, one of Amazon’s Echo smart home devices in their house had silently sent recordings to the caller without the family’s permission.

The person who received the recordings was a co-worker of the husband, who was in the family’s contact list. The Amazon device didn’t tell the family that it would be sending any recordings to anyone leaving them completely unaware what had happen.

In a statement from Amazon, the company said that the device woke up when it heard a word that sounded like “Alexa.” Then the subsequent conversation was heard as a “send message” request.

At which point, Alexa said out loud “To whom?” At which point, the background conversation was interpreted as a name in the customer’s contact list.”

The company also said, “As unlikely as this string of events is, we are evaluating options to make this case even less likely.”

Clearly a lot of pieces had to fall into place for this to happen, but this isn’t the first time that Amazon’s smart speaker has garnered scrutiny due to eavesdropping.

Recently, researchers discovered a flaw in the Alexa voice assistant that enables an Echo device to continue listening to people without them knowing.

The devices are supposed to record audio only after users issue a voice command, known as a “wake word” however, the Amazon device continued recording long after the “wake word” had been said and the user was no longer interacting with the device.

Since the inception of smart-speaker assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, customers have had to live with the fact that by using these products and services, their data is being collected.

Of course, how much data is being collected is the big question. Another major concern is what these companies actually do with the data from these devices and what is the benefit?

The thing is these companies are probably using this data to target specific ads toward their customers. With that being said, I want to share with you a few ways you can hopefully prevent these devices from spying on you without your knowledge.

Change the “wake word.” Most smart assistant devices use voice-enabled “wake words” to start listening to your commands. This helps keep your device from listening to unnecessary information, and it gives you an easy word to shout from the kitchen when you want to set a timer. .

For example, for the Amazon Echo the wake word is “Alexa,” and the Apple wake word is “Hey Siri.” However, you can go into the settings of your smart device and change the “wake word” to a more unique name or word that will prevent accidental activation of the device.

Turn off unnecessary options. One of the main reasons that companies such as Amazon and Google want to record your conversations is so they can use it for marketing purposes.

With that being said, in the settings of these smart device applications companies will allow you to turn off many different options.

The problem is it’s not easy to tell which options in the settings of the app record your information. For instance, with the Amazon Alexa you should toggle the button next to “Help develop new features” to the off position.

Of course, what does this have to do with recording conversations? Well, this feature actually allows Amazon to review your recordings to help improve the user experience.

So even though it may not sound like an option that record your conversations you still want to turn off all options that aren’t absolutely necessary.

Be cautious of third-party apps. Even if you’ve taken all the necessary steps to change the settings of your specific device, you still have to account for third-party apps you download that could have their own listening feature such as Facebook.

When it comes to any third-party app you download you want to make sure it is from a legitimate company, not some overseas company that you’ve never heard of.

In addition, after you have downloaded a third party app to your device you need to go into the main application for your device and turn off the microphone for each third-party app.

Basically, you want to avoid having someone capture recordings through another application.

Unfortunately, the companies who make smart home devices want to learn as much as possible about their customers, but this comes at a steep price of invading their privacy.

The problem is these companies will continue to do this based on the simple fact that no one is stopping them.

Products from every large tech company that you place in your home: smart thermostats, smart appliances, smart…anything can be used for eavesdropping into your personal life, and the only person who can stop it is you.

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