Smart Home Privacy

June 02, 2018
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The threat to one’s privacy is the main issue most people have with smart devices. After all, what if Alexa records everything you say? The privacy concerns are valid and shouldn’t just be overlooked. With just a few minutes of research and a decent idea of what to expect from your smart home, you can overcome many concerns over privacy.
 

The Main Concerns with Privacy

The concerns when dealing with smart homes generally center around one main theme: that the new technology that you’re using might be giving away too much information about your personal life. This is mainly aimed at digital assistants, such as Siri and Alexa, who are programmed to hear when you speak to them and then to follow the request that you give them. Most smart home privacy concerns are, indeed, aimed specifically at these devices. Though amazing to some users, they are looked at with a good deal of distrust for others who are more privacy-minded and don’t like the idea of their privacy being breached.
 
And just what is the main concern when it comes to these digital assistants as well as other smart home devices that you might have? It’s simple: people are concerned that they’re being recorded. But, do these devices record what’s going on around them? Do they really cause such problems with your privacy that you shouldn’t bother with them?
 
The answers to these questions are best found by looking at the products themselves. The privacy policies of the companies can do a lot to alleviate smart home privacy concerns, making them more comfortable to use.
 

How Do Digital Assistants Work?

Before delving into the murky depths of privacy issues, it’s imperative that you know how digital assistants work in the first place. To those who aren’t quite up to date with digital tools and new technologies, they might seem like a tool out of some movie taking place in the distant future, far beyond comprehension. But, they’re actually fairly easy to understand if you know the very basics of how they work and what they do.
 
The first thing to understand is that, yes, they are listening to what you say. That might be disconcerting to those who are concerned with their privacy, but it shouldn’t be. The reason is because they’re only listening out for their activation phrases, also known as “wake words.” These include phrases such as “Okay Google”, “Alexa”, or “Siri.” You know them as the words you must say to start a request for these digital assistants to complete a task for you.
 
The reason behind this is a bit more complicated and brings us to the second thing that you should know: the real brains of the program aren’t located in the room with you. Instead, they are located far away in a server that the device you’re using has access to. That’s where they take your voice, transform it into a command, and then execute it. Your voice command is kept, much in the same way that your internet searches and information on browsing are kept.
 

Are They Always Listening? Can You Stop It?

So, to make a long answer short, as we mentioned above, yes. You’ll find that most digital assistants, including Alexa, Siri, and Google Home, are always listening. But, that’s just part of the story and makes it sound more invasive than it is. They’re always listening out for those wake words, the words that activate them. They don’t just listen to your conversations and record everything that you say; they’re not smart enough to do that. All that they do is listen for the words that will tell them that you’re requesting they do something. Those requests, however, are recorded and saved. This is done in the same way that internet searches are and are just as invasive there as they are with a digital assistant.
 
Still, knowing that your devices might be listening in, even if they’re only listening for an activation phrase, might seem like too big a breach of privacy for some people. The idea that you could be recorded, even by accident and without malicious intent, could be unsettling enough to prompt them not to use one of these digital assistants. For example, just last week there was an incident when Alexa accidentally send conversations unknowingly to friends of one consumer.
 

 
But, thankfully, there are ways to temporarily stop all recording in these devices, putting your mind completely at ease. Both Google Home and Amazon Alexa offer ways to turn off this listening function. Is Alexa always recording? With this setting, she won’t be! And, though Amazon Echo records what you say, with this setting, you can temporarily ensure that it doesn’t.
 

Amazon’s Privacy Policy

So, what kind of information does Amazon hold onto from Alexa? This is perhaps one of the more realistic points out of all Alexa privacy concerns. The answer is fairly simple: it holds onto the information that you put into it. This means that if you ask Alexa a question, she’ll remember that you asked even after it’s been answered. Likewise, Amazon Alexa keeps track of the other information, such as your calendar and address book, as the information is given to it. It gets this information directly from you and does so without listening in on every conversation that you have. Afterwards, it is normally stored in the cloud for your convenience to be used when you need it again.
 
This might seem a bit too close for comfort, especially for the more privacy-minded people out there. But, it’s vital to keep in mind that the only information that Amazon is saving is information that you’ve provided it. This is the same basic concept that is used when browsing the internet and is about as innocuous as a Google search. Smart home privacy concerns when using Alexa might be valid, but the information concerning them is normally not something that you bother hiding when you use other devices anyway. For added comfort, you can use the feature that stops Alexa from recording for a while. But, what this digital assistant records and stores is completely on par with other devices.
 

Privacy with Google Home

In general, Google Home seems to record a little more than Amazon Echo does. This is to help the device learn more about the users, making it more effective as a digital assistant than other similar devices. However, that might not be what those who value privacy want to hear when considering a Google Home purchase. So, while Google Home does have a few privacy concerns, there are ways to work around them.
 
For instance, there is an option that allows you to turn off the recording. This gives you greater privacy; however, it also means that you can’t use Google Home searches and the like while the recordings are off. But, that isn’t where the protection ends. You can also go in and delete any searches for a specific amount of time, getting rid of any traces of privacy-related issues. Because you can delete your history so easily and thoroughly, Google Home is a good choice in digital assistants for those who value privacy. Though it does record, the same as any other assistant, it will let you keep track of, and later get rid of, anything that it saves.
 

Mitigating Privacy Risks

If you take privacy in your home seriously, you’ll want to do everything you can to make sure that your home is secure. There are several steps you can take to beef up your home’s security.
 
Blocking
Blocking prevents an attacker from collecting your smart home traffic. This prevention method would entail creating a firewall that blocks sensitive traffic from leaving your home. However, some of your smarthome devices would lose functionality if some of their traffic streams were blocked.
 
Tunneling
Another method for protecting your network is to tunnel all of your smart home traffic through a virtual private network or VPN. A VPN protects you by wrapping all of your smart home traffic under an additional transport layer into one traffic flow. This would make it difficult for an attacker to identify individual devices.
 
Traffic Shaping
You can use traffic shaping to route all of the traffic flowing in and out of your smart home through a central hub which would add another layer of security. This hub could be a router that has custom configured software which masks your traffic rates. In a technical sense, traffic shaping pads or fragments all packets to make them the same size and buffers device traffic.
 

Conclusion

There many smart home privacy concerns that go along with using digital assistants. But, by looking at it with a careful eye, it becomes obvious that these concerns, while valid, shouldn’t stop you from using Alexa or Google Home. By taking the proper precautions and keeping in mind that you reveal this information every time you surf the web, you’ll find that smart homes and their devices are very secure indeed.

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