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Smart homes and devices, and digital assistants

Published onApr 08, 2020
Smart homes and devices, and digital assistants
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Pretty much everything I have to say about security on digital home monitoring and security systems, “smart” TVs, home lights, and thermostats, baby and pet monitors, web-enabled toys (in sum, what’s called the “Internet of Things,” or IoT), and “assistants” like Alexa, Cortana, or Siri boils down to one word:

Don’t.

Just don’t use them. (I don’t say this about pretty much anything else in our digital lives.) I’m not the only one saying this; Consumer Reports is also skeptical about these devices; they’re developing standards on privacy to protect us all.

With “internet of things” devices like smart lights/thermostats/security cameras/fridges/toasters/etc, we’re just not at a stage yet where security has caught up with technological development. Many of these systems don’t use the best possible security standards; they cut corners.

There’s an entire search engine devoted to finding unprotected Internet of Things devices, and unsavory characters can use it to find live streaming video of sleeping babies. Or even to say horrible things to kids. Yes, even through the Amazon Nest—this isn’t just cheap baby monitors.

“But I need help from Alexa, Cortana, or Siri!”

I’ll temper my advice on digital assistants a little bit. If you constantly have your hands messy, can’t control your devices due to physical difficulties, or have your hands full with kids, ok, sure. In your case, the benefit of having a voice-controlled system may outweigh the risks of an evolving technology that constantly snoops on conversations you have. But make this choice for yourself knowing that Google and Amazon workers listen to the recordings of their companies’ digital assistants, and contractors hired by Apple regularly hear drug deals, medical details, and people having sex.

As I say in Keep Calm and Log On, if something isn’t doing work for you right now, turn it off. You may want to turn your phone all the way off if there’s something you don’t want it to hear. Get used to turning off your apps’ permissions to use the microphone, using the “applications permissions” instructions here. For digital assistants, you may need to deny Google, Amazon, or Apple services the right to use your microphone.

“Am I being followed around by ads because my phone is listening to me?”

Not necessarily. It’s worth knowing that there’s many other ways your devices and apps can suggest things for you to buy—like matching your social media data to data from credit reporting companies.

Honestly—it’s just not that likely that companies use their devices’ listening capabilities to target ads for one reason: Audio files are huge. For comparison: one of my Word doc drafts of Keep Calm and Log On is 397 pages and 856 kilobytes. The eBook reader Kobo estimates that the average audiobook lasts 10 hours and takes up 280 megabytes of space. So an audiobook of my book would be a file over three hundred times larger than the print version.

Audio is also much harder for an automated system to accurately get information out of than text or location data. If 2.5 billion people around the world have smartphones, and, say, their devices are recording everything around them for the 16 or so hours a day they’re awake, that’s forty billion hours of audio these services have to process each day. Asking to link your social media account to your credit card data is a lot faster and more effective right now.

If you won’t give up on your IoT devices

There are, at least, a few things you can do to stay a little bit safer:

For more tips on your digital security and privacy, order a copy of Keep Calm and Log On.

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