What's Going On Inside Your Home Assistant?

By Leah Froats
Jan 25, 2018 3:37 AMNov 20, 2019 6:00 AM


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An Amazon Echo Dot. (Credit: George W. Bailey/Shutterstock) This past holiday season, you may have been one of the millions who either gave or received a home assistant like the Google Home or Amazon Echo. Voice-activated assistants are helpful, increasingly affordable, and make you feel like you’re truly living in the future. But, like, any new technology, there’s some reason to be cautious of our newest roommates. In a recent article exploring the social impact of the technology, Jennifer Yang Hui and Dymples Leong explain that much of the concern surrounding home assistants comes from the devices’ smart design. “Because people tend to humanize and become habituated to the presence of technology, especially intelligent ones, they believe that home assistants are their new friends who have their best interests at heart. But this is not true,” says Hui, an associate research fellow at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. The combination of these assistants’ “smart,” unobtrusive design and their ambient listening makes it easy to grow accustomed to — or even entirely forget — that these devices exist in the home. But, some worry, what are the privacy implications of a device that’s always listening in? What’s Inside? While the exact bits and pieces inside of your home assistant will vary by model and brand, there are some attributes that they share. Home assistants by themselves aren’t very smart — they don’t have anywhere near the processing power of a computer, or even a smartphone, built in. Their own chips are capable of doing a few basic tasks, like turning the lights on, but that’s about it. Instead, home assistants are more like intermediaries. Take Amazon’s Echo, for instance. It’s main job is to wait for its “wake word,” which can be “Alexa” or “Computer,” among several other options. After hearing it, the Echo will record the audio that follows and send it to the “Alexa Voice Service,” a cloud-based program that completes your request and sends the data back to the Echo. Upon delivery, Alexa will simply repeat the information she’s been sent. This means, of course, that everything in your Echo query will be sent to the cloud, where it can be stored and analyzed. This data may seem useless to you, but companies can use these queries to suggest products to purchase or understand your daily habits. Both Amazon and Google allow you to delete your localized home assistant search history, but warn that deleting the information may degrade your experience with the product. “Users should access their home assistant’s history logs and clear private recordings once in a while as part of cyber hygiene measures to protect the privacy of their data,” says Hui. In addition, home assistants also use Bluetooth in order to connect with your smartphone and any other smart devices, such as smart lights or thermostats, you may have in your home. As the number of connected devices and applications increases it is able to collect and communicate even more data back to its parent company.

No Reason for Panic

Don’t let that disconcert you too much, though. These devices aren't always in full listening mode. Home assistants don’t actually record the majority of what you say — just the audio that follows the wake word. If the wake word is common, though — like, say, “computer” — the potential for an unintended recording of your conversations or queries is higher, and it makes it easier for companies to manipulate the system. Recordings from home assistants have already been submitted as evidence in court. Amazon agreed to hand over data from an Echo device in a murder suspect’s home in Arkansas, though it initially balked. The legality of using home assistant data in this way hasn’t been buttoned down yet, though. While the Fourth Amendment might protect an unreasonable seizure of information from your home, you do agree to provide your data and voice recordings to a third party when you use a home assistant. “What is clear from the Amazon Echo case is that it will not be the last time that the right to user privacy is invoked in future legal cases involving speech-activated technology,” write Hui and Leong. The full scope of privacy and security issues surrounding home assistants is yet to be understood. If you choose to bring one of these devices into your home, it’s important to understand how and why it works the way it does to ensure your privacy is maintained — no matter how fun it may be to play Jeopardy at the dinner table.

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