Surprise! All those electronic devices you adore and rely on so much, like your TV and XBox can be just as much a security threat as a hacker who reads all your emails.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) sent a letter last week to the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department asking regulators to look into “always on” technology. The group cited technology from Microsoft, Amazon, Google and others as worrisome.
EPIC fears the average consumer isn’t aware that some of these devices are actually spying on them by recording their conversations even when the device seems to be turned off. The privacy implications of these devices, which they believe infringe on individual rights, is profound.
The companies say the devices are only engaged in “conversation” when triggered by a “hotword” or a certain gesture. However, those designs can’t be counted on to always work as planned and could cause accidental recordings.
If you’re worried about your privacy, here’s a list from EPIC that can help you audit your chances of staying anonymous.
The browser is reportedly able to remotely install code that allows the software to listen to users without their knowledge. The code was originally designed to support Chrome’s new “OK, Google” hotword detection, which activates a computer response when you talk to it. However, some users claim the code was installed and activated on their computers without them giving their permission.
Google responded to these complaints on its Chromium developer boards. “While we do download the hotword module on startup, we do not activate it unless you opt in to hotwording,” the company wrote. Some developers question this claim.
The Samsung SmartTV has a built-in microphone that is equipped with voice recognition technology that allows users to give verbal commands to the TV. In order for Samsung to convert your speech to text, the voice commands are sent over the Internet to a third-party for interpretation.
This Internet-streaming home security camera is a product of Nest Labs, which is now owned by Google. The camera comes with a microphone and streams video and sound directly to a consumer’s smart phone in real time. With the Nest “Aware” app, Google can record and save up to 30 days of video and audio.
Using the recording, the camera has the ability to alert users when an “unusual sound” is detected. Nest has the capability of distinguishing between unknown or known voices, which is an important security feature. But privacy advocates are fearful because the company does not disclose how the technology works or how much information the company collects.
Canary Connect is another company that develops Internet-connected home security systems. The security device can store audio and video recordings from inside a user’s home for 90 days and can be set to one of three modes — “armed,” “disarmed” and “privacy.” Unless the device is in “privacy” mode, it will automatically begin to record when triggered by motion.
Users have complained that there isn’t an easy way to determine what mode the device is in. In addition, the interface doesn’t notify consumers when it is switching modes.
Microsoft has installed its “always on” voice and motion recorder, called Kinect, in its Xbox videogame consoles. When users say the word “Xbox,” the Kinect tracks and records the users’ voice and hand gestures in order to follow commands. In order for the device to know when to turn on, the console monitors conversations at all times.
Amazon Echo, like other voice-activated computer programs, is triggered awake by the word “Alexa.” The device is constantly listening in on household conversations for the word, which then triggers the system to record and stream the recording to Amazon’s cloud for processing and storage. Amazon has not revealed what data the system collects and if it saves conversations or words said before “Alexa.” In addition, various companies are in the process of incorporating Alexa into their Internet-connected devices. Amazon has not revealed how much information it will have access to once these other companies begin to collect their own data.
Mattel’s “Hello Barbie”
A new high-tech Barbie has sparked a furious outcry from the advocacy group Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. Through a Wi-Fi connection and a built-in microphone, the new Barbie is able to hold conversations with a child. Critics, in addition to the privacy concerns, are worried that Mattel is exploiting the children and using them for financial gain because they can learn the child’s likes and dislikes. Mattel counters that there are safety precautions put in place and that the toy fills a niche for children who want to be able to speak with their Barbie.