Are Your Devices Spying on You?
In this day and age, smart devices are everywhere. Smart TVs, virtual assistants like Alexa, fridges that have touch screens and can browse the Internet. It looks like we’re speeding towards a science-fiction future where your entire house responds to your commands. A word switches the telly on, a flick of the wrist, and the fridge offers you a nice, cold porter. On one hand, this sounds like a technological paradise. On the other, it can pose serious privacy risks.
How, exactly, does Alexa hear you tell her to add the newest Mark Lawrence novel to your cart? With a microphone that takes in your voice, of course. Rather like the microphone you might use to record yourself on a live stream. So what prevents Alexa from recording your voice on her own? Not much. If you’ve ever popped open Amazon and found that it’s recommending a product that you never searched yourself, just discussed out loud with your spouse, it’s likely that Alexa heard that, recorded it, and used the data to personalize your ads.
With an increasing number of smart devices in your home, you need to understand how much they may be spying on you and how best to protect yourself. Here on Spyalot.com, we’ve got you covered with information on how and why your smart devices might be spying on you and what you can do to protect yourself.
Does your smartphone listen in on you? Almost certainly. It often won’t just be your smartphone, either. Any app that you download, from a quick mapping service to free games, could access data saved on your phone – not just data the app generates as you use it. For example, that mapping service will use your location services to pinpoint exactly where you are and, likely, where you’re going.
Additionally, these apps can gain access to your cameras and microphones – even the phone itself can. Apple has previously admitted that it used the iPhone’s microphone to record conversations under the guise of an attempt to improve Siri’s AI and voice recognition capabilities. They also admit that their servers contain records of a user’s interactions with Siri, though they claim to only hold “the minimum data.”
Of course, it would be unfair to point all spying fingers at Apple and their iPhone. Predatory spy apps are accessible through other devices, not just the Apple family. Additionally, Android phones are just as liable to be listening to your voice – after all, the voice assistant needs to be able to hear you calling so it can help. According to Insider, “[your] interactions are archived to improve the service,” in reference to the voice assistant used by Android.
The best way to prevent your phone and its apps from spying on you is to be careful about the accesses you give them. If you were to download an app that asks for full access, for example, that could include your camera, photos, microphone, app activity, and location services. You can manually go through each app under Settings and modify what your apps have access to, permitting them to use certain services only if you’ve opened them or never at all. Be careful about what apps get full access to so you can protect your privacy on your smartphone.
Alexa and her Echoes are the smart speakers produced by Amazon. In some ways, they can make life incredibly easy. You can start your favorite song by asking Alexa to play it. Alexa can start a timer for your roasted chicken or answer those pressing questions by pursuing Google, so you don’t need to get to your computer. But like in the example above, Alexa is also privy to some of your more private conversations. Personalized ads don’t seem like they would harm you much, but that’s just the tip of Alexa’s data iceberg.
“Alexa” is more than the AI’s name. It’s also the “wake word.” In other words, Alexa is supposed to lie dormant until you say, “Alexa,” at which point the virtual assistant wakes up and begins to interact with you. It’s rather like opening your laptop while it’s asleep. Except it doesn’t work as cleanly. If you’ve ever had an Echo device in your home, then you know that it will occasionally flip itself on, even if you don’t say “Alexa.”
Which.co.uk conducted a study testing Amazon Echo and Google Assistant smart speakers and found that “both voice assistants recorded more conversations than they should have.” One of the participants that tested the Alexa “noted that his voices recordings, when played back in the Alexa app, sometimes included words stated immediately before the wake word that weren’t intended for the voice assistant.” In other words, Alexa caught some words before she was supposed to be awake. Imagine that you have a sensitive conversation with your significant other, then turning on Alexa and have her record a part of that conversation.
If you want to get a good idea of what information Alexa records, then you can submit a request to Amazon to give you the data that they’ve saved. If you want to stop Alexa from listening in, then you have a few options. The simplest is to either unplug or mute the device – although both of those options limit the Echo’s actual use. A lot of the convenience is lost when Alexa can’t hear anything you’re saying. You can also go into the Alexa app on your phone and manage your privacy settings. It’s buried deep, though:
- Open Alexa’s menu
- Hit “Settings.”
- Hit “Alexa Account”
- Hit “Alexa Privacy”
- Hit “Manage how your data improves Alexa”
- Toggle the button next to “Help develop new features” to the off position
- Toggle the button under “Use messages to improve transcriptions” to the off position
This will prevent Alexa from recording new snippets of data – but it isn’t going to stop the company from going through what they have.
A mere two years ago, Google’s device chief Rick Osterloh was asked if he thought homeowners should tell guests that they have smart devices in their home in an interview with the BBC. His response was, “Does the owner of a home need to disclose to a guest? I would and do when somebody enters into my home, and it’s probably something that the products themselves should try to indicate.”
Google Nest and Google Assistant are siblings to Alexa and her Echoes but created by Google instead of Amazon. Like Alexa, the Google Assistant is supposed to sleep until hit with its wake word, “Hey, Google.” And like Alexa, Google Assistant will record some of your data. According to Google’s support page about retaining audio records, “By default, we don’t retain your audio recordings.” This may seem contradictory to the above study from which.co.uk, but that study was a year old at the time of this writing. The Alexa portions are still relevant.
That said, Google does state that they “store data about your interactions with the Google Assistant on its servers.” Users are free to delete this data and can even set Google Assistant to record their audio if they would like. Google also has links to resources that will allow you to see the data that the Assistant does save. Overall, Google Nest seems a little bit friendly to privacy than Alexa, given that the default state doesn’t record your audio. Of course, it makes sense that your smart speakers would have microphones and be listening as well. But what other smart devices might be eyeing a digital eye on you around your house?
Security cameras are proven to reduce crimes just because criminals notice them. They’re so effective that you can buy “dummy cameras,” non-functional cameras that you post around your property to deter would-be criminals. Since the simple sight of a camera lens can be enough to deter crime, it makes sense that one would want to post a camera as close to their door as possible.
Ring systems provide just that, building a camera right into your doorbell. It seems ideal, as it lets you see the porch pirates nabbing your packages and get video evidence of their wrongdoing, or even see if that pizza delivery person has been standing on your front step a little too long for comfort. Ring has had its share of controversies, including Congress trying to understand the relationship between Ring and over 900 police departments. CNET investigated this further, discovering “that Ring provided police with nearly precise location of Ring owners on maps.” This sort of partnership could allow police departments and Ring to create massive nets of surveillance in residential neighborhoods, without bothering to tell the owners.
Additionally, it was revealed that Ring also shared its data with third parties other than law enforcement. The Electronic Frontier Foundation conducted an investigation that revealed multiple companies were “receiving information such as the names, private IP addresses, mobile network carriers, persistent identifiers, and sensor data on the devices of paying customers,” which is an awful lot of private information to be let loose. Sites that received this data included branch.io, mixpanel.com, appsflyer.com, and the more familiar facebook.com, even if you didn’t have a Facebook account. Ironically, the security system meant to protect your privacy leaks a lot of it.
The Internet Of Things
The Internet of Things, or IoT, simply refers to however many devices you have connected to the Internet in your home. Depending on how smart your home is, this might not be much. A work computer, a laptop, maybe your smartphone to save on a bit of data. But your IoT grows as you bring more smart devices into your home. Do you control your vacuum from your phone? Then you’re using a Wi-Fi connection. Your smart fridge lets you play Food Network so you can follow along as you’re cooking? That’s the Wi-Fi.
It may seem innocuous at first. What’s the harm of your smart TV hooking up to the Wi-Fi for easy Netflix browsing? Well, the potential damage is high. You might see a TV or a vacuum, but a hacker sees a back door into your network.
You protect your laptop with top-end security software. After all, you don’t want a malicious individual using that computer to obtain your sensitive data and access your home network. But every single device you attach to your router creates a potential opening for a hacker. As the previous examples have illustrated, even simple devices can store large amounts of data that a hacker might want to get a hold of. Additionally, once they have a foothold in your system by hacking your smart fridge, it can make it easier for them to find their way into other, more sensitive devices. You might not even know if the hacker doesn’t do something obvious. They might just be sitting at home, watching you through your Ring and listening to your conversations with Alexa.
There are a few ways that you can protect your IoT and its smart devices. Make sure to thoroughly read the user’s manual so you understand how they connect. Change the passwords from the one the factory gave you, and make sure to use diverse passwords so you can make your IoT as secure as possible.
For better or for worse, the age of smart home technology is upon us. There’s an app for everything from your coffee mug to your toothbrush. It has brought an unrivaled convenience to our lives but also risks exposing some of our most sensitive data. The best way to protect yourself is to understand what you’re buying, make sure that you’re aware of the permissions those devices have on your devices and be careful what you buy.