“Is my smart speaker spying on me?”
Hi, everyone, and welcome back to another week of Ask Trish!
I hope you’re all well, enjoying March, and hopefully, for those of you who, like me, are in the Northern Hemisphere, some Spring weather. For those of you in the Southern Hemisphere, enjoy the last of summer while you have it! Thank you so much to the person who shared this week’s question, which is an absolutely fantastic one. It’s a great question for a lot of reasons: 1) it shows critical thinking – which is something I’m always trying to encourage and 2) it touches on a technology we haven’t already discussed on Ask Trish (which is saying something, because we’ve already done so much): smart speaker devices! This week, we’re going to get into these devices and leave you all smart sneaker experts.
A brief preview of what’s ahead: as it relates to your question, the short answer is – it’s complicated. I’ll try to make it simple and clear in this post, though! We’ll first talk about what smart speaker devices are, then talk through the opportunities present, and then tackle the issues (including potential privacy concerns). We’ll end with some brief food for thought from me as to what you might consider if you’re thinking about buying a smart speaker device. Sound good? Okay! Let’s get into it.
First and foremost, what are smart speaker devices? Smart speakers are Wi-Fi enabled devices that normally have an intelligent assistant built-in. For instance, Amazon’s smart speaker has an assistant named “Alexa” built in, which is why the device is colloquially referred to as “Alexa.” (In fact, it’s actually called the “Amazon Echo.”) There are several smart speakers out there, including Amazon Echo, Google’s Nest, Apple’s HomePod (whose assistant is Siri, which, if you have an iPhone, is the same assistant as the one in your phone!), Sonos Move, the Denon Home 350, Bose Home Speaker, and more. We’re not doing a product review/breakdown in this post, but keep in mind that there are plenty of options out there.
What they do
So, why do people buy smart speaker devices? What can they do for you? Well, smart speaker devices have tons of interesting features and applications, from playing your favorite music to making a restaurant reservation to searching for some information you’re wondering about (“How old is the Earth?”), to setting alarms or timers while you’re cooking (which, if you’re as kitchen-challenged as I am, can be really helpful). Some even allow you to answer or decline your phone calls while you’re busy doing other things. One particularly cool feature of many new smart speaker devices is that they can integrate with other devices and technologies in your home. For instance, you can connect your smart speaker with your thermostat or light bulbs, so you no longer have to manually adjust the temperature or turn on the lights – you can just ask the smart speaker to do it for you. Pretty cool, huh? Another nice feature is that many of these smart speakers are pretty small – so they don’t take up much space, wherever you put them.
Okay, okay…we’ve talked about the good; now, let’s get into the not-so-good. What’s not to potentially love about smart speaker devices? Well, critics raise primarily two concerns. The first is the one that you raised in your question – privacy. After all, as soon as you issue a voice command to your speaker, e.g., “Alexa…,” the device is instantly listening and recording everything you’re saying. And even when you’re not speaking to Alexa, her microphone is always on: It has to be because Alexa needs to be listening for its wake word (whether “Alexa” or another word) so it knows a request is incoming. Amazon says the recordings are to “improve the accuracy of your interactions with Alexa.” Although you can delete these recordings and other Alexa data by saying “Alexa, delete what I just said” or “delete everything I said today,” it can still be kind of creepy to think about. And it’s especially a concern when you consider the many things you might talk about or do in your home, including private things, with just you and your family. The other key issue raised by critics is the way the technology might be used in the future. For instance, last year Amazon announced that Alexa may soon be able to mimic other people’s voices, including the voices of the deceased. That could potentially be a really nice thing…but it’s also easy to imagine how such a feature could be manipulated. In an era of mis/disinformation and concerns over the authenticity of information, such a feature could pose a challenge.
Eager to learn more about how to safeguard your privacy and security when using a smart speaker device like Amazon Alexa? Check out ConnectSafely’s “Parents Guide to Amazon Alexa,” which includes a lot more valuable information – even if you’re not a parent! And for Alexa users, be sure to also check out Amazon’s instructions on how to review and delete all Alexa recordings.
So that’s smart speaker devices, in a nutshell. Considering buying one? I’ve included below some brief suggestions as to what you might consider.
- What will you be using it for? Are you thinking of getting one because it’s cool? Because you think it’ll help out around the house? For some other reason? Reflecting on your motivations can be a good way to make this decision, especially if you have privacy concerns.
- Which one? While some smart speaker devices are better known than others, as I mentioned earlier in this post, there are plenty of options. Do your research and know that the sound quality can vary, which may be important if you’re using it for music
- How much does it cost? Smart speaker devices can vary considerably in price. Figure out what your budget is, and then look at devices within your price range. Amazon devices often go on deep discount, especially on “Prime Day,” typically in June.
- Is it an open or closed ecosystem? An “open ecosystem” is a tech/platform that can readily integrate with other technologies, whereas a closed ecosystem can only integrate with technologies from the same company. If you’ve got all Apple devices, then this might not be a big consideration; on the other hand, if you want to avoid getting “locked in,” it’s definitely something to think about.
I hope you enjoyed learning about smart speaker devices, and that you find my tips on what to consider, should you choose to buy one, helpful. Before I sign off, as always, I’ve got one ask to make – if, after reading this post, watching this week’s video (or literally doing anything), an Internet-related question or thought pops up, please quickly share it here. Your topic just might be featured in next week’s TikTok/blog post! And it only takes 30 seconds – seriously. For those of you who are new to Ask Trish, just a reminder that anything is fair game. Whether it’s scary or funny, serious or a passing thought, I’d love to hear from you. I’m excited to share my advice with you (and the rest of this community, which totally benefits, too)! Thanks in advance for contributing.
See you all next week! Until then,