THE CHALLENGE OF PRIVACY IN THE SMART AGE
We live in a world that’s more connected, and smarter, than ever. All it takes is a simple tap to communicate with someone on the other side of the world, while a voice command can quickly access a world of entertainment, manage our personal calendars or control domestic appliances.
But as our homes become filled with smart devices – from speakers, to fridges, to lightbulbs – a spotlight has justifiably been placed onto customer privacy and the challenge of balancing a technology-led lifestyle with the comfort of security.
Smart home privacy is an issue that’s become a global cause for concern in recent years. Much of this unease centres around how smart speakers and other ‘always listening’ devices may collect and use data.
In the latest Smart Audio Report from NPR and Edison Research, 63% of respondents not owning a smart speaker stated that one reason for this is because they are worried hackers could use it to access their home or personal information.
It appears that trust is a key obstacle that stands in the way of people adopting voice assistants, as further reports corroborate. A German study by Trendmonitor Deutschland revealed that 52% cited a reason for not purchasing a smart speaker was down to fear of surveillance.
Similar fears are even shared by people who own smart products. In a survey of voice assistant users by Microsoft, 41% admitted to worries around trust, with data security (52%) and passive listening (41%) reported as top concerns.
WHAT AMAZON SAY
One major company within the smart home industry, Amazon, assures customers that all Alexa and Echo devices are designed to protect customers’ privacy – offering both transparency and control for users. The device will only begin recording once it hears the ‘Alexa’ wake word, then all interactions are encrypted in transit to Amazon’s cloud where they are securely stored.
Alexa users will know when their device is recording because a blue light indicator appears, or an audio tone will sound. Echo smart speakers also have a microphone mute button that electronically turns off the microphones.
Despite these measures in place by companies like Amazon, concerns around smart home security remain. This is largely due to a host of unnerving news stories from around the world where customer privacy has been compromised.
One of these stories revealed unprompted, “creepy laughs” from Alexa, after several users went viral sharing their bizarre experiences on social media. Another worrying incident became global news after developers at Germany's Security Research Labs created Alexa skills and Google Home actions that posed as astrology apps, but were designed to secretly listen to people's conversations.
More recently, an ex-Amazon boss revealed to BBC Panorama that he switches off his Echo device whenever he wants privacy. Robert Frederick, a former manager at Amazon Web Services, explained: “I don’t want certain conversations to be heard by humans. Conversations that I know for a fact are not things that should be shared then I turn off those particular listening devices.”
He also said: “Whoever owns, collects the data, if you have access to it, and rights to data, then you are king. It's all about the data. Everything.”
Meanwhile, making the headlines in the New York Times was an extravagant-looking bracelet that blocks any microphones in the vicinity from listening in on the wearer’s conversations. While the ungainly wristwear may still be in its prototype stage, it highlighted the drastic measures people are willing to take to ensure privacy in their lives.
With stories like this disseminating across global news outlets, it’s easy to understand why some consumers continue to have big reservations around smart home privacy. In order to reverse this, the onus is now on manufacturers to provide transparent solutions that alleviate any fears concerning security – and thus regaining customer trust.
A SMART SPEAKER THAT PUTS PRIVACY FIRST
Discussing the launch of Pure’s first smart speaker, Director of Engineering, Martin Harrison, said: “When we made the decision to enter the smart speaker market with DiscovR, it was immediately agreed that customer privacy should be of paramount importance to us – in light of growing, global concerns around smart home security.
"Mic Drop is an electro-mechanical solution that provides guaranteed privacy to a DiscovR user. As the function physically disconnects the microphones, no one can eavesdrop on a closed DiscovR – no matter their motives or resources.”