The selection: Smart devices are not the smarter choice

The selection: Smart devices are not the smarter choice

THE TECHNOLOGY in modern household appliances has breathed new life (and plausibility) into the old adage “If these walls could talk.” Your fridge and smart speaker may not have mouths, but they do have an internet connection, and that can be more dangerous than the sharpest of tongues.

Tech companies and manufacturers have made it seem like privacy is just a matter of digging into your device’s settings and disabling cameras and microphones. But after years of data breaches and high-profile reports of secret recordings, you may not trust that approach and look for analog solutions that neutralize the hardware rather than the software.

Your phone is not an excuse for not caring

You might not care about devices snooping around your home because you assume your phone is already absorbing and transmitting everything you say and do to Big Tech, but that’s wrong. You see, your phone doesn’t need to use its eyes and ears to spy on you: you’re already feeding it a ton of information just by carrying it around with you everywhere. Then there’s the biometric data you use to unlock it, and all the apps you interact with that collect information about what you like, browse and watch.

This is not just guesswork. A 2018 study by researchers at Northeastern University found that of the 17,000 most popular apps in the Google Play Store, only a small handful of them are secretly listening to you. There are exceptions, but research shows that most apps are well behaved and don’t eavesdrop without your knowledge. To allay our fears even more, both Android and iOS have launched on-screen features that let you know when your phone’s microphones or cameras are operational.

So when it comes to spying equipment, the true wild cards are devices connected to the Internet of Things (IoT): smart refrigerators, washing machines, dryers, light bulbs and thermostats. Over the past decade, people have welcomed these gadgets into their homes, often without realizing that their data may be poorly protected or that malicious actors may be able to take control of the device themselves. Even those who know about the potential security risks have reported difficulty finding specific information about them.

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Then there are smart speakers. The sole purpose of this type of gadget is to respond to your voice commands, but to do their job they need to be listening at all times. And according to manufacturers like Amazon, they also have to record everything you say after the trigger word. They do this so that their systems (and sometimes a team of people you don’t know) can analyze your words and use them to help the artificial intelligence that powers the speaker improve over time.

It makes sense – after all, algorithms are only as good as the data we feed them. But even if you don’t have a smart speaker at home, you know that trigger words can be tricky. It’s not uncommon to “Hey Google” out of your heart without the gadget ever acknowledging you, and sometimes the most casual conversation can summon Siri—even if no one said anything remotely like the name of Apple’s digital assistant. Nonverbal sounds can also invite Alexa to the party, and Amazon’s product has been caught sending private conversations to strangers.

Fortunately, a lot has changed in the last couple of years. Amazon’s latest generation of Echo devices now come with a built-in button to mute the microphone, preventing listening or recording. This also defeats the purpose of a smart speaker, but it will allow you to have that intimate family conversation in private – if you remember to press the button first. Don’t worry if you’re stuck with an older Echo model: the company also changed its privacy settings so you can manage the recordings, transcripts and usage history Amazon has on you, and even delete them. No matter which model you have, you can choose to prevent Alexa from saving any future recordings of you and tell the company not to use your data to improve its smart assistant.

After Alexa continued to make headlines over privacy concerns, Google and Apple took action of their own. The Big G incorporated new management tools to give users more control over their Google Assistant usage history and put a switch on the speakers to mute the microphone. Both companies stopped human review of users’ recordings, but Apple stepped it up a notch when it announced that Siri would start handling commands locally. This means that Apple’s HomePod does not need to send any recordings to the company’s servers to process a request.

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When it comes to protecting user privacy, these are all undeniable steps in the right direction. But it’s still fair to wonder if any of this would have happened if it hadn’t been for independent investigations and reports shedding light on outlined situations. It’s also fair to wonder if there are other ways that these IoT devices are giving beans, laying a messy foundation for unexpected consequences in the future. More than that: These concerns are perfectly reasonable.

In the digital age, privacy solutions are analogue

Deactivating a camera is easy: you just cover it. How you do it depends on what you have on hand. You can use a piece of thick tape, get a dedicated cover glass, or, depending on your setup, drape the cleaning cloth that came with the glasses over it. The possibilities are endless.

However, disabling microphones is a different story. The microphones on smart speakers and household appliances are built to detect and understand human speech. To that end, they are equipped with an AI-powered speech system that allows them to focus on one sound source, effectively isolating your voice. So even if your huskies decide to come together in song in the same room, there’s still a pretty good chance your gadgets will understand the trigger word. This means that to prevent your devices from spying on you, you have to drown out their microphones with constant loud noise. Not the most practical task in the world.

This is not to say that there are no solutions. Take Project Alias, for example: an open-source, 3D-printable gadget that sits on top of your smart speaker and constantly muffles the microphone to prevent recording. It won’t completely neutralize your speaker, and you can rename your device so that when you say the trigger word, the microphones will work again. That means if you rename your Echo speaker to “PopSci,” Project Alias ​​won’t allow it to hear “Alexa,” but will allow you access if you say “Hey, PopSci.” The bad news is that Project Alias ​​was designed to fit an earlier tubular version of the Echo, and the discontinued Google Home, so it only helps if you buy these speakers used or already have one at home. Needless to say, it won’t work with other IoT devices.

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When options are lacking, the next step we can take to protect our privacy from snooping devices is not to buy smart home devices. This might sound like an extremely disappointing solution, especially when you’ve already used a washing machine that sends text messages when your laundry is ready for the dryer – but that’s what we’ve got. The research team at Northeastern University is looking to find out how much data these gadgets are harvesting, but as long as manufacturers hide information under the guise of proprietary technology, we will never have full transparency about what they are actually doing. And just like with smart speakers, change is most likely to come only after abuse has been exposed and damage has already been done.

In the meantime, if you’re in the market for new appliances, ask yourself if you really need the light bulbs connected to your WiFi network, or how much value refrigerator alerts give you. Sure, being able to peek through your phone’s doorbell camera can be incredibly useful, but the price you pay may not just be in dollars—and you pay it as long as your device is online.

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