5 gadgets in your home that are listening in to your private conversations!

Highlights
  • Smart speakers like Amazon Echo, Google Home, and Apple HomePods use always-listening mode to stay alert for trigger words
  • Smart TVs have been recognised as a potential target for hackers
  • Your conversations can be used for ad-targeting by companies

As our lives become more dependent on technology and our homes filled with more gadgets than ever before, it seems our expectation of privacy has started to erode. With tech companies using mics and cameras to record the things we do — even in the confines of our homes — to make our lives more convenient, we are paying for that in the form of our personal data in most cases. However, even the privacy we have been used to for decades has become a premium, with many companies watching and listening to everything we say to make their gadgets better or to sell our data to third parties. Moreover, there is always the threat of surveillance and hacking as more of our gadgets get connected to the world wide web. Here’s a look at five gadgets found in most homes today that are probably listening in to your conversations.

Smart speakers

While this may not come as a surprise to some of you, Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant on its Echo speakers listens to everything that you say, all the time. More important to point out is that it listens to you even when you don’t use its wake up word. As the speakers have to be always ready to accept commands from the user, Alexa is constantly listening to you and is triggered as soon as it detects its wake up word. If this is not enough to scare you, Alexa-powered speakers store all of the commands given by you to the speaker. These commands are stored in servers and Amazon has admitted that some of its employees have to listen to these commands to help improve the service.

Other popular home speakers like Google Home and Apple HomePods also have always-listening enabled by default so that they can stay alert for trigger words. News reports have revealed that just like Amazon, both Google and Apple have also used hired contractors to listen to user recordings. In many cases, these recordings were not intentional voice commands, which is the primary cause of concern here.

In order to avoid any compromise of privacy, you can either turn off the smart speaker entirely or block the mic using the dedicated switch in all popular smart speakers.

Smart TVs

Any gadget that is connected to the Internet and features in-built cameras and microphones is susceptible to hacks and smart TVs are no exception. However, smart TVs usually fly under the radar for most of us when we are trying to protect our gadgets from hacks. But it’s not a new phenomenon — WikiLeaks in 2017 alleged that CIA hacked Samsung smart TVs to record the conversations of its targets and send the audio clips to CIA servers. But even without the spy agency’s involvement, Samsung TVs going back to 2015 were recording everything you say around it, thanks to the voice recognition tech, and then sending the data to a third-party.

Interestingly, just a few months ago, the FBI issued a warning regarding the risks and privacy concerns associated with smart TVs. If the FBI is warning you regarding the security risks associated with a gadget, you better believe that there must be some precedent of the device getting misused against the user. Some of the tips posted by FBI were really good and would help prevent some common hacks too. In case you were wondering, following were the guidelines suggested in the warning:

  • Know exactly what features your TV has and how to control those features. Do a basic Internet search with your model number and the words “microphone,” “camera,” and “privacy.”
  • Don’t depend on the default security settings. Change passwords if you can — and know how to turn off the microphones, cameras, and collection of personal information if possible. If you can’t turn them off, consider whether you are willing to take the risk of buying that model or using that service.
  • If you can’t turn off the camera from the settings menu but still want to, a simple piece of black tape over the lens is a back-to-basics option.
  • Check the manufacturer’s ability and track record of updating smart TVs with security patches.
  • Check the privacy policy for the TV manufacturer and the streaming services you use. Confirm what data they collect, how they store that data, and what they do with it.

We would recommend you to follow these guidelines to an extent where you feel comfortable but more importantly, remain aware that your TV could potentially compromise your privacy.

Smartphones

Did you ever suspect that right after having a conversation about a particular topic, while surfing online, you sometimes get served ads related to the products that were related to your discussion? The strange bit is that this sometimes happens even if you haven’t even searched about that subject on the Internet yet. A Vice reporter experienced something similar after having a conversation at a bar regarding a trip to Japan. The reporter was served pop-up ads on Facebook for cheap return flight tickets from Japan although he never manually searched for flights himself. Considering that the only gadget he had on him while he was at the bar was his smartphone, this incident led the reporter to conduct an experiment where he deliberately used certain phrases to see if his smartphone picks up audio without being manually triggered.

The reporter claims that the changes came overnight and he was now being served ads that were related to the phrases he deliberately fed to the smartphone without ever using smart assistant trigger words, in case you were wondering if it was picked up because of a voice assistant.

Unless you’re in a field that requires you to deal with confidential information, you might be alright with advertisers getting these sound clips but it is important to understand how several companies have access to your data that you are not aware about.

Tablets

Just like smartphones, tablets have become an integral part of most of our lives. This also means that the risks that come along with smartphones are also tagged along with the tablets as well. Considering that there are several work fields where professionals have started using tablets for work, it is important to understand that tablets could also be picking up your audio. Although this type of content is said to be stored locally or on first-party servers, as we mentioned earlier, social media apps usually request access to this data and can use it for marketing. In most cases, this should be harmless but if you work with confidential information, this could be a concerning factor for you.

Laptops

Most of us use laptops for work and while we all forget from time to time that our laptops come with a webcam and in-built microphones, it is important to keep this in mind. We currently live in a world where a hacker sitting anywhere in the world can potentially have access to your home and everything that you say. While it is easy to paste a slip of paper on to your webcam to avoid its misuse, you need to be especially careful with your built-in microphone. In order to avoid a situation where your privacy is compromised, you need to make sure the permissions that you give to any new apps or software that you install on your laptop. If you stay away from unknown sources, you will likely not run into this problem but with voice assistants, such as Cortana, the amount of information that you might end up sharing unknowingly with companies would surprise you. If this bothers you, you can choose to disable such services to make sure that your laptop is not listening to you.