Tech & Science Smart home devices 'add extra layer of vulnerability'
Samsung is reportedly making a budget Bixby-powered smart speaker
A second Galaxy Home, this time entry-level
Home assistant gadgets like Amazon Alexa and Google Home have exploded in popularity, with plenty of Australians waking up on Christmas morning with one wrapped up under the tree.
They're convenient and affordable, with basic models costing less than $40 and the top of the range options setting you back around $200.
But if one of these devices has moved into your living room, you might be wondering what exactly they're listening to, and where that information is going.
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The head of cyber policy at the Australian Security Policy Institute, Fergus Hanson, said the devices were not immune to being compromised by hackers.
"Home assistants are basically adding an extra vulnerability to every home in Australia, they're constantly listening," he told A Current Affair.
"There have been examples where they've demonstrated that you can hack into an Amazon Echo. These have been reported to Amazon and fixed, but every piece of equipment has vulnerabilities and can be exploited ultimately if enough resources are thrown at it."
Saying "Hey Google" or "Alexa" will trigger the device, which will begin recording everything it hears – it then uses the internet to answer your question, or fulfill your request, and sends the recording to the cloud.
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There have been reported blunders with the technology though – in one example in the US state of Oregon, a woman's Amazon Echo recorded a late-night private conversation with her husband, and sent it to his employee.
Law enforcement may also be able to access private recordings.
In New Hampshire, a judge in a double-murder trial has ordered Amazon to provide all recordings from a device which was sitting on the kitchen bench while the grisly crime was being committed.
It could be crucial evidence needed to secure a conviction.
There's also criticism that these "assistance" devices are more interested in helping the multi-billion dollar companies which created them, rather than the consumer.
The design of the gadgets means the manufacturers Amazon and Google gain unprecedented insights into our habits.
Amazon reports over 100 million Alexa devices sold
Amazon is notoriously reluctant to share how well Alexa is doing in the marketplace -- at best, you get vague boasts about its devices being the "most gifted." Now, however, it's providing more meaningful figures. The company's Dave Limp told The Verge in an interview that over 100 million Alexa-equipped devices have sold to date. It wouldn't say how many of those are its own devices or break products down by category, but the data suggests plenty of people have Alexa-capable devices in their homes. The company is sold out of Echo Dots through January, Limp added. The stats don't provide a full picture of Alexa's reach.
"I think these devices are really aimed at trying to help the companies build a better profile of you to better sell you products and serve you products," Hanson said.
We know both Amazon and Google are sniffing around the prospect of using the data to sell you products.
Google has filed patents which could see future devices try to sell you cold and flu medication, if they record you coughing or sneezing.
When you take a look at Amazon Alexa's terms and conditions you'll find your interactions may be stored on international servers, and that third-party service providers have access to your personal information so they can better perform their functions.
Amazon and Google told A Current Affair trust is of the utmost importance, that their devices are built with privacy in mind and will only record when they hear the wake words – "hey google" or "alexa".
You can read their full statements below.
Google Assistant will soon be listening on one billion devices
Google has some news to go alongside its giant pavilion that dominates the lot outside the main halls of CES 2019. The company expects that, by the end of this month, its Google Assistant will be... assisting on one billion devices, across Android phones, iPhones, TVs, headphones, watches, smart speakers and smart displays. And the other weirder things. So, in the voice assistant stakes, how does this compare to Amazon? Well the retailer recently cheered that it has sold 100 million Alexa-connected devices across the world.
Google Home and Amazon home assistant devices have mute buttons, which turns the microphone off so they can't hear anything.
For the Google products, you can delete your stored conversations and recordings by going to myactivity.google.com and choosing "delete Activity".
For Amazon, the website is amazon.com/myx.
You then delete the history by clicking "Your Devices" and "Manage Voice Recordings".
Statement from Amazon
Customer trust is of the utmost importance. We build Echo devices with privacy in mind from the beginning, striving to put the control in our customers' hands. We recognise one single solution won't be sufficient for every customer, and have built in multiple layers of privacy protections into Echo devices:
On-Device Keyword Spotting Echo devices are designed to detect only your chosen wake word (Alexa, Amazon, Computer or Echo). The device detects the wake word by identifying acoustic patterns that match the wake word. No audio is stored or sent to the cloud unless the device detects the wake word (or Alexa is activated by pressing a button).
Mute and On/Off Buttons: Echo devices come with a mute button built in that makes it very easy for customers to control when their devices are ready to detect the wake word.
Clear Indicators When Streaming: The UX provides customers with a clear indication of when audio is being streamed. When the wake word is detected, a blue light illuminates, either on top of the device or on the display, to clearly indicate to the customer that it is streaming audio to the Amazon cloud.
Control Over Voice Recordings: We give customers control of the voice recordings that are in the cloud. Not only are they able to see and hear what Alexa heard them say, they can then go on to delete each individual utterance associated with their account, or delete all voice recording history.
Statement from Google
All the devices that come with the Google Assistant built in are designed with privacy in mind. The mics only listen for the hotwords "Ok Google" or "Hey Google," and Google only stores voice-based queries received on the device after it recognises those hotwords. Users are in control of their information and can view or delete voice queries in My Activity. Finally, Google Home devices have a microphone mute, giving users control over when the Google Assistant is available.
Lenovo crammed Google Assistant smarts into this adorable alarm clock.
Lenovo's new Smart Clock is a compact smart display with a 4-inch touchscreen and fabric cover, and it's designed to live on your nightstand. As you’d expect, you can use your voice or the screen to set alarms, play relaxing sounds or music to help you fall asleep, have it control connected gadgets like your lights and coffee maker, and see what time it is. It also packs a mute switch to turn off the mic, and there’s a USB port you can use to charge other devices, like your phone. With that feature set and a single 6W speaker, it’s essentially a good alternative to a Google Home speaker, which doesn’t have a screen.
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