How Safe is Your Amazon Echo or Google Home Device?

Many of us have incorporated smart devices into our homes and daily routines to make our lives easier in the digital age, but just how trustworthy are they?  Recently some interesting reports from customers using these devices have thrown into question whether or not they are secure and safe to use.  We’re delving into some of the facts about how often these devices listen to conversations they shouldn’t and where your data really goes!

 

Amazon Echo

The Amazon Echo device is one of the most popular, well-known smart home devices around the world.  The Echo is a smart speaker that connects to Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant.  The Amazon website boasts that Alexa can hear you from across the room, even with music playing.  Several other companies have designed their own products to work with the Alexa voice assistant such as the Ecobee4 smart thermostat and Phillips Hue.  Amazon also offers other home devices such as the Cloud Cam home security device.

 

Google Home

Another popular product, the Google Home is similar in its offering to the Amazon Echo, in that it is a smart speaker with a voice assistant.  Google also offers other complimentary devices such as the Home Hub and Home Mini, which are designed to connect via Bluetooth as a network and hear you from any room in your home.

 

Are They Always Listening?

For both the Amazon Echo and the Google Home, the answer is yes, they are always listening to your conversations.  This is necessary for the way that the devices are set up, to hear and activate upon voice commands from a user.  As a user, if you’re having a private conversation that you’d prefer your smart home device not to listen to, you’ll need to turn the device off completely.

 

What Are They Recording?

According to both Amazon and Google, the devices will not record a conversation until you say the keywords that will trigger them.  After the keywords have been said, both devices start recording your words and conversations from that point onwards, and everything that has been recorded is uploaded to the cloud.  This is necessary to the functioning of both devices, as the words that you’ve spoken must be sent to the cloud for interpretation, and then passed back down to the device to carry out appropriate actions in response.

 

What Are They Storing?

Both devices are collecting and storing your personal information.  You can go into your account and delete certain information that you’d rather remain private, but the devices will also ‘unlearn’ any preferences related to the information you delete.

 

Linking Devices

Both the Amazon Echo and the Google Home can be connected to other smart device around the home, so it is good practice to only link the devices that you would like to use together and leave everything else unconnected.  The reason for this is that when you’ve connected two devices, they share with each other what information they’ve collected about you.

 

Who Gets to See Stored Information?

Both Amazon and Google will have access to their stored information about you, as well as third party advertisers who have partnerships with these companies.  The linked devices that are sharing information with each other will also have access to your personal information, even information that you haven’t directly or explicitly shared with each device.

 

So, Are They Safe?

You can use these devices safely in your home, by remembering to turn off the device’s listening functions when you’re not explicitly using the device.  The fact that users can go into their account and remove sensitive information is a good feature for both devices.  It is concerning the number of parties that may have access to your personal information, and neither Amazon or Google will specify which third party advertisers are privy to your personal information.  The potential for unscrupulous individuals to hack into these devices is also a cause for concern.

 

Both Amazon and Google remain tight-lipped about how their wake-words and recordings work.  Both state that their devices only activate after detecting the wake-words, however, recent news articles have surfaced debating that.  Exactly what personal information these devices record and retain is cause for concern, with both Amazon and Google potentially recording much more than consumers bargained for (and much more than they will admit to), and many websites have posted various articles about this:

https://www.wired.com/story/amazon-echo-alexa-skill-spying/

https://consumerwatchdog.org/privacy-technology/how-google-and-amazon-are-spying-you

https://www.news.com.au/technology/online/security/google-is-recording-everything-you-say-to-a-bot/news-story/fcf90d5c6b20acb9cf35d1e6c029a3ac

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/nov/10/spy-christmas-smart-home-facebook-portal-google-home-hub-amazon-show-alexa

 

Are We Really Entitled to Privacy?

We believe that every person is entitled to their privacy, and so does the Australian Government.  In fact, our privacy is protected by law, in the 1988 Privacy Act.  However, due to the rapid development of tracking technologies, analytics and technology in general, a policy designed in the eighties is not always able to keep up with the times.  How the government aims to enforce the 1988 Privacy Act, if ever, is also not well understood.  Big technology companies are banking on the fact that privacy laws are not often looked at and we as customers must agree to lengthy privacy policy documents before we can use their devices.  Attitudes in society are changing in both government and the public with recent outrage at the invasion of privacy Facebook committed against its users.

 

What Information Are Businesses Required to Keep?

Another point to consider in this whole scenario is that businesses are required by Australian law to keep certain information and records for seven years before they are legally permitted to dispose of it.  Updated laws now require telecommunications companies to hold communications information for two years.  Every Australian state also has its own specific set of laws and regulations set out to dictate how long business must retains records and what records they must hold.

 

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