The Privacy Issue with Always Listening Devices


There are a few smart home products on the market, and a few more on the way, that are ushering in the vocal-command smart home assistant craze. We’re already used to our smartphone assistants, like Siri, but now we’re seeing home devices that offer an array of services, like playing music, looking up information, ordering pizzas, setting timers, creating shopping lists, and, of course, playing entertaining games.

The best feature of these devices is also the feature that we should be the wariest of – it’s “always on and always listening” function. In a world where we are all already constantly armed with camera lenses and microphones that may be accessed by apps to collect data, we are now welcoming a device with spy potential into our homes.

While these devices do offer a button that mutes the microphone, that basically defeats the purpose of having the device in the first place. If you have to stop what you are doing, walk over to the device, press the button to turn the microphone on, then make your request…well, you might as well just use your phone or your computer at that point.

Where do we draw the line regarding privacy; do we choose convenience over privacy in the future? Will we soon live in a world where our devices know us and our loved ones better than we do? Are we headed toward that Minority Report reality where so many of our intimate life details have been captures that we start getting served ads offline that are even more personalized than they are today?

OK, sorry for my conspiracy theory rant – but it’s important that we are thinking about our privacy. Sure, anyone that uses the Internet, or a smartphone (so, pretty much everyone) knows that a lot of data is already being collected about them, and used to serve dynamic advertisements online. The thing is, they are using the data that you have willingly offered – you punched it in the search bar without setting your session to private. With these always connected, always listening devices there is an eavesdropping vibe. The device might wake up because it thinks you have used its wake word, so it will start listening. Eventually, the device will have collected all these fragments of conversations that you never meant to share with its parent company (who at its heart is in the business of business). The next question for consumers to consider is: what are they doing with all of that data – the data you intended to share by making an actual request, and the data that was collected by accident?

I am definitely interested in these voice-controlled devices, and their ability to act as a hub for my smart home technology – but where is the line? It is becoming increasingly tougher for us skeptics to keep up with the latest tech unless we accept and adapt to this always listening reality.

Do you use an always listening device now, or do you avoid them?

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Jeff is a tinkerer. He loves gadgets, but usually waits until the reviews are out before buying something. He loves the DIY projects, and loves help setting things up too. Some of his favorite products and services may not be the most well known, but he loves his custom solution.