Voice-activated home systems are a tempting and fairly affordable luxury. But is smart-home tech a smart choice if you value privacy? We took a peek at the pros and cons of these systems.
Illustration: fotolia.com / Julia Tim
The point of technology is to make our lives easier, but what do we give up for convenience? With voice-activated devices such as Amazon’s Echo and Google Home becoming more affordable, it’s fair to ask what age-old protections are being taken out of our hands.
Google and Amazon have assured consumers their products are not constantly eavesdropping and beaming every word you say to the Cloud. They are, however, always listening for a “wake word”: “Alexa” for Amazon Echo and “Hey Google” for Google Home. Anything you say after those wake words must be recorded and saved in order for these devices to do their job. Both devices come with a mute button, which, when activated, transforms them into paperweights.
While these devices are good at picking up commands, they’re not made to differentiate voices. San Diego’s local news channel picked up a story about a little girl who bought – without her parent’s permission – an expensive dollhouse and several packs of sugar cookies through the Amazon Prime connected device. Alexa’s not one to slow you down during a purchase and, if you do change your mind, orders can only be cancelled via your online account.
Unlike smart phones, Echo and Home aren’t connected to telephone networks, emergency services or anywhere else besides Amazon and Google, so a possibly life-saving upside to these devices is missing. “Alexa, call 911!” is not currently a feature and won’t be possible until a litany of legal requirements is met.
While Amazon and Google have pledged not to listen in, hackers have already proved the devices are easy to access and control via downloadable apps. With a few keystrokes, they can keep the microphone on, set up alerts for certain buzz words and even turn on the device’s camera without you knowing.
In the end, with all its conveniences, anything you can do with Echo or Home you can already do with a smartphone. These devices make sense for someone running out the door with their thermos in one hand and their baby in the other, but are, ultimately, the antithesis of living off-the-grid. If, in your log home, you’re too busy to manually change a song or order something off the internet, you may not be living the simple life after all.