Cyber Security Consultant poses the question: '˜Alexa, are you spying on me?'

Alexa is Amazon's virtual personal assistant, she was introduced to us about four years ago when Amazon's echo smart speaker was first released.

Wednesday, 7th November 2018, 1:18 pm

Alexa is Amazon’s virtual personal assistant, she was introduced to us about four years ago when Amazon’s echo smart speaker was first released.

Alexa is native to Amazon and she lives in several of the company’s devices.

Unlike traditional speakers, playing music on one of Amazon’s smart speakers is only just scratching the surface.

Users can dictate voice commands to their devices and use it to control other compatible products throughout their homes.

The magic occurs when Alexa devices such as the echo speaker are connected to the internet!

On doing so, we have the ability to manipulate our smart-home products to cater for daily tasks - we can control the temperature in our homes, switch lights on and off, create to do lists, set reminders and much more.

Some devices even support voice and video calling – meaning your device can call someone else’s Alexa device simply by issuing a command “Alexa, call Mammy” or you can use it for something more personal, like setting up a custom baby monitor system.

Sounds class, or does it? You see, I’m beginning to wonder if we’ve come to live in a day and age where convenience takes precedence over privacy.

That said, more and more people are introducing Alexa into their homes each year. These devices have become one of the fastest growing technological innovations with Alexa being one of the most recognised voices of smart-home technology, today.

Amazon’s voice-controlled Alexa products are often referred to as ‘always on’ devices, this means that the devices are constantly listening, silently waiting for you to say the wake word: “Alexa..” The wake word then triggers a recording mechanism and your command is subsequently processed and stored by Amazon.

The technology giant has expressed that the reason they use and store our voice commands is to make Alexa smarter and deliver a more personalised experience for their customers.

Now, here’s the problem. What if more information than we know of is being processed by Alexa? Or, more than Amazon is willing to publicly admit? Likewise, what if the wake word is interpreted and Alexa starts recording private conversations within our homes?

A few months back it was reported that a woman in the US had a conversation from within her home secretly recorded and sent to one of her telephone contacts from her echo device.

As if that wasn’t enough, there were also many reports that Alexa devices has randomly started laughing from nowhere! Both incidents were attributed to the device mishearing commands and was practically shrugged off by Amazon, whilst users maintained that no interaction was initialised with their device and they never said the wake word or issued any commands to Alexa.

While voice controlled speakers are seen as today’s handiest household product for some, for others they are viewed as trojan horses in the age of digital surveillance.

Don’t get me wrong, I can see how these devices can be used as a force for good and why the demand behind them exists. However, it makes me wonder – does Alexa’s features overshadow the security issues associated with opening access to our private lives?

Does Alexa, in a way, normalise surveillance?

There is no question that these devices pose a risk to privacy but that alone isn’t ample grounds to scrap the use of voice-controlled smart devices.

However, it does mean we need to err on the side of caution and take extra measures to protect our right to privacy.

If you’re unsure about an Alexa device, it’s worth doing your homework and configuring the products you buy to match the level of privacy you desire.

Exercise your discretion; don’t install a smart home security system only for a burgler to arrive at your property and ask your Alexa in the hallway to unlock the front door!

If you’re not using your device hit the mute button, or plug it out.

You can also use the Alexa App on your phone or tablet to listen to your previous Alexa commands or, at least, what she understood as a command!

Why not give it a go, you may well get a surprise.