Safety and security for smart devices


NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The convenience of your Amazon Echo and Google Home could come at a cost, according to tech security experts.

"The concern would be privacy and security," Tech Security Expert Jason Kee said.

The devices are designed to connect to your smart phones, emails, and streaming services.

"They know what you watch what you buy and how you pay for it, and one distracted or dishonest employee could put the identities of millions at risk," Kee said. "People work with these technologies on the back end and we have to be aware of that."

Unless you manually shut off the microphone, the devices are always listening, all day, every day, even when you think you're out of earshot. It says right on the box they can and do hear you clear across the room.

"To me, it's definitely amazing how far away it can hear you and how much it does hear," Nashville resident Lindsay Hays said. "I feel like that could definitely be disconcerting to some people"

It appears both Google and Amazon anticipated these concerns. Both devices are ready to talk to you about them right out of the box.

If you ask the Echo, if it's spying on you, it replies, "I only send audio back to Amazon when I hear you say the wake word."

Depending on the device, the trigger word is either "Alexa" for the Echo or "hey, Google" for Google Home. In order to recognize those words, the devices are, by definition, listening to everything you say.

"That's a little scary," Hays said.

Only Amazon and Google know for sure exactly what the devices hear, record, and send to servers. The companies say they only need those recordings to be more helpful, but say the terms and conditions can change the "features, functionality and other product specifications without notice or obligation."

"It's a little disheartening that they can just change things on you after you already agreed," Hays said.

Kee said it's not just the companies that can access your device.

"Someone who has the ability to access your machine from outside of your home basically could potential he use these items to spy on you, listen in" Kee said. "If someone knows when you're home or when you're not home he could put you in danger."

Google and Amazon say they take steps to keep your privacy and identity safe.

"Your security comes first in everything that Google does," the Google Home device responds when you ask if it's recording everything you say.

However, criminals have been hacking into webcams and baby monitors for years.

"We have to trust these companies with that technology and make sure they are securing it properly," Kee said.

So what can you do? Because your devices connected to your home network and other devices, you have to protect all of them.

"Make sure you have a firewall," Kee said. "Certainly use antivirus software on your computers and malware software on your computers"

Google responded with the following statement:

"All the devices that come with the Google Assistant are designed with privacy in mind."

Google only stores voice-based queries received immediately after recognizing of hot words “Ok Google” or "Hey Google". Hot word detection runs locally on the Google Home device across a short snippet of microphone data.

If the hot word is not detected on that short snippet, the snippet is immediately discarded.

If the hot word is recognized the data including the query contents are sent to Google servers for analyzing and storage in personal activity history.

Activity history is stored similar to other web activity like search history. Users can delete voice recordings in the setup app or 'myactivity page.'

Amazon referred questions to the Alexa FAQ page.

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