Traveling in the 80s and a home full of smart devices

Wiretapping on the reel tape recorder. Headphones near the technique. Special agent work. Retro old school spying on conversations. Picture is from Adobe Stock.

Is the smart speaker constantly listening?

In the 1980s, when the Cold War still was part of our reality, my school class was given the opportunity to travel to Estonia, a country that at this point was a part of the Soviet Union. When I excitedly told my family, my father, a well- travelled man, and especially well– travelled in the Soviet Union, wanted to give me some advice. Or to be more specific some definite prohibitions. One of them was to not drink tap water. The other was of a more peculiar nature, he told me to watch my mouth, because the hotel rooms were bugged. I still don’t know if he was serious about it or if he just wanted to add to the excitement. However, the stories about bugged hotel rooms during the Cold War were abundant. A narrative we all had heard, at least in the movies. 

While the allegedly bugged Soviet hotel rooms were shrouded in secrecy, the tales about them bear a fascinating resemblance to a modern phenomenon, a home filled with smart technology that could easily be used for espionage. Smart Home ecosystems bring us convenience and practicality we have never seen before, but they also raise privacy concerns. As we invite smart technology to our homes, we are faced with the fact that convenience comes at the cost of privacy and with an unsettling hunch that we may not be aware of how much of our privacy we are trading off. Are we in fact bugging our own homes? 

He told me to watch my mouth, because the hotel rooms were bugged.

Let’s have a look at how the Smart Home and smart speakers that are associated with them work. The three major players in the Smart Home market are Amazon Alexa, Google Home and Apple HomeKit. All three offer a voice-controlled Smart Home ecosystem including smart speakers, also called hubs. The hub connects the devices in the Smart Home ecosystem and listens and carries out voice directions.  

The smart speaker is activated by a vocal prompt, a so- called wake word. Even when in stand-by mode, the smart speaker listens for the prompt. This has raised concerns about privacy, is the smart speaker constantly listening? According to the privacy policy of Amazon Alexa and Google Home the recording starts only when the device is activated. In standby, the device listens but does not record or save any data. 

However, Google admits that the speaker could accidentally start recording when it picks up a sound that resembles a wake- word. This is also true for Alexa; the smart speaker can sometimes accidentally be triggered and listen to private conversations. To cut the problem with a constantly listening device it is possible to turn off the microphone. 

What about data collecting?

Amazon states that they gather personal information to personalize and further improve the user experience. Their privacy policy also notes that user messages will be stored in the cloud for them to be available on the users Alexa app. 

As far as Google is concerned their safety center claims that Google is not storing audio records by default, however it is possible to change the setting in which case Google uses the data to improve its services and machine learning. Googles safety center states that the stored data will be disconnected from users Google Account before it is seen or annotated by reviewers. 

Apple HomeKit stores data in iCloud. The data is end-to- end encrypted and can only be accessed on a user’s device. Apple does not have access to the data. 

Smart home devices connected to internet. Picture Adobe Stock.

We are not defenseless victims of a Cold War- like surveillance

In conclusion one could say that even though the speaker is constantly listening and waiting for a vocal prompt, it is not recording or saving any data before specifically asked to do so. However, an always listening device is likely to cause concern, therefore it is crucial for the manufacturer to offer transparency on how data is collected, stored and processed. Transparency builds trust and enables the consumer to make educated decisions. 

As consumers, we must adopt a responsible attitude to data security and privacy concerns. We are not defenseless victims of a Cold War- like surveillance, our safety and privacy lie very much in our own hands. Taking measures to ensure our online privacy and data security is crucial. Keeping our devices updated, being careful on what personal data we share as well as using strong authentication are some simple steps that help us strike a balance between the convenience of a smart home ecosystem and the protection of our privacy. 

About the writer

Lena Wadström- Ekblom is an Information Technology Student at Centria University of Applied Science. Currently she is working as a trainee in the SIFIS- home project. She is interested in understanding and improving cybersecurity in our everyday life. 

Lena Wadström- Ekblom at Centria University of Applied Science.