Smart speakers: The walls have ears

Smart speakers marketed by web giants don't just obey finger and eye movements. They also record! Vocal orders and even words spoken in the intimacy of the home therefore arouse much interest.
 
Vigilance is essential.


Smart speakers: highly intelligent or too intelligent

Smart speakers perfectly complement home automation.
Like real personal assistants, these little technological gems make everyday life easier. Linked up to the connected devices and appliances in the home, whether the coffee maker, the roller shutters or the boiler, they repeat the orders received and can even “understand” the words spoken by their owner.

 

The speakers, designed by Amazon, Google or Apple, wait for a signal or keywords to perform a task. This is another step forward for the connected world, and it would sound like a fairy tale if it wasn’t for the bugs. In the United States, a journalist finds that his Google speaker is recording conversations without having been instructed to do so. The company admitted there was a malfunction and disabled a button that came to life unexpectedly. Still across the Atlantic, Amazon brought to court data recorded by a speaker that was discovered at the home of a murder victim!

 

“Smart speakers provide a wealth of information about their owners which can be used at will. ”


A gold mine of data

Like the forms and profiles filled in on the Internet and browsing histories (and we haven’t even got to phishing yet), data recorded by smart speakers offers a wealth of information about their owners. Automatic vacuum cleaners, for example, can measure the size of rooms and the space between walls and furniture. This can provide information about the owner’s socio-professional category.

 

It’s a potential treasure trove which advertisers, or in some cases the authorities, cannot ignore, and constitutes a definite threat to the privacy of millions of users.

 

One of the speakers’ shortcomings relates to the conditions of storage of information on the cloud. The other concerns the commercial stakes involved in this data if it is sold or pirated once it is passed on to the company that designs the devices. The happy owners of virtual assistants then feel betrayed, just as they would if they had been betrayed by a real-life employee who disclosed home secrets to third parties.

Avoiding the poisoned chalice​

With experts predicting a sharp increase in smart speaker sales during the holiday season, precautions need to be taken. France’s data protection authority (CNIL) is responsible for ensuring the regulation of personal data in the digital world. The CNIL advises parents to monitor their children’s  interactions with this type of device and turn off the microphone or switch off the speaker when not in use or “when you do not wish to be listened to”. The CNIL also points out that “anything said is likely to enrich the advertising profiles”. It is therefore advisable to regularly delete the speaker’s history.

 

An insolvable issue remains. Even though Google and others would still comply with the current laws on personal data protection and would only disseminate them with the express consent of the interested parties, what about cases of large-scale hacking, such as Yahoo or Uber were recently victims of?

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