Sebastian Scholz

How secure are voice assistants?

01 October 2019

Do we have to be concerned about the privacy risks of a smart speaker such as Alexa or Google Home? Are real people listening to family conversations, even when we're not interacting with our assistant? Are we right to worry about hackers breaking into our smart home? Or is it all just a storm in a glass of water?

We already delved into the different popular smart speakers and their features. Smart speakers such as Amazon Alexa, Google Home and Apple's Homepod have become increasingly popular during the last years. Recently this led to some large privacy concerns when Amazon employees revealed they listen to private recordings. Are smart assistants a threat to our privacy?

A voice assistant is always on. The microphones on these smart assistants can listen to and record more conversations than you think. This could pose serious security issues.

Are my conversations recorded?

What we do know is that Amazon employs workers to listen to commands via Alexa. In that way they want their assistants to get a better understanding of human speech and interaction. Thus it is necessary that real human people transcribe the conversations. In short, real people are training the voice software to improve their dialogue with end customers. Win-win, you would assume.

But off course this means that people of flesh and blood get to listen to your bedtime questions to turn off the lights or your kitchen conversations while trying a new recipe. Not that intrusive you would say? A voice assistant is always on and can pick up more than you think. Personal conversations with your family and friends for example. And what if your smart assistant becomes a witness to a criminal activity, a sexual assault or a child screaming for help?

Amazon states that their workers don't receive any identifying data like location or address. They have to respect the privacy of their customers. So it's a take it our leave it case. Amazon will continue to analyse your conversations to improve their Echo devices via human intervention. Who can blame them for that?

  Bence Borosgooggle

Are hackers trying to break into my smart home?

Another -perhaps even more serious concern- is the fact that hackers might try to break into your smart home. The microphone of your voice assistant is a vulnerable victim to people with mal intentions.

They could use your speaker to let you download malicious voice software. In that way they can even infiltrate other devices linked to your assistant and let you make online purchases, unlock doors and turn off your alarm. Once they have access to your network of devices, the damage is done.

Apple, Amazon and Google have all claimed to be constantly improving their security measures against these attacks. Security is definitely one of the biggest challenges for the whole smart home industry, but even more to voice assistant developers.

Do I have to kick out my voice assistant to be safe?

That might be a little too dramatic, but we may say that voice assistants aren't on the safe side of smart devices. As much as they offer us comfort, they pose some risks that customers have to take into account. Only when the smart home industry is aware of these risks, we can take informed action. And we hope that the big tech companies are with us on this.

If you as a customer want to feel more safe, you could opt for a distributed wired system such as KNX or Loxone. They meet stricter security requirements since they need to protect their whole ecosystem against hackers.

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