THE BLOG

Your Devices Will Soon Be Listening to You

06/25/2015 12:46 EDT | Updated 06/25/2016 05:59 EDT
Kohei Hara

The year 2015 will be remembered, amongst other things, as the year your devices started listening and watching you. Until now, to have your device listen to you, it usually required you actively interact with the device, such as pressing a listen or record button, for it to engage. This year, we're already seeing a passive listening trend, that will affect our behaviour moving forward.

Earlier this year, we've heard two big stories about passive listening, specifically that Samsung Smart TVs are listening to you in the privacy of your home, likely without your knowledge.

A few weeks later, it was disclosed that Barbie can now listen to your child's playtime conversations.

About a week ago, still making its way to the media, it was discovered that the Google Chrome web browser has started installing a hotword module that is allegedly listening for you to say "OK Google" to do a search. The code isn't open source though, so you can't know for sure.

And this week, Amazon has just launched their newest product, Echo, which is a device that uses seven microphones listening in your house at all times for your voice, claiming to recognize your voice even over loud music and other audio, sending everything you say into the cloud for logging and processing.

Most of these devices offer the same functionality; they always stay on, listening for your voice. When they do pick up your voice/audio, they send it to the cloud, where they can store it forever. Once it's in the cloud, they process it, and respond appropriately. This is a dream for those with accessibility challenges, and a nightmare for privacy advocates.

For those concerned about their privacy, how many apps on your phone or computer have you allowed to passively listened for your voice? If you're on Android, check out F-Secure's App Permissions, which requires no permissions to install.

How many other devices in your house may be recording you? Your alarm clock? Watch? Alarm system? If they're "connected," there's a good chance if they're not listening right now, they soon will be.

This doesn't stop with audio, video listeners are being launched as well. If your device has a camera, you might also want to check to see what apps are allowed to passively watch you. For those who argue privacy is dead, or that you have nothing to hide, think of the benefits of something like Google's Nest Cam watching you and your children in the bedroom or bathroom 24/7, should an emergency arise.

As consumers, we speak primarily with our wallets. Purchasing and/or using these products is the strongest sign of support. It's not obvious to a company if someone is not a customer because they haven't heard of the product, aren't in a financial position to support it, or don't support how privacy invasive it is. If you're going to boycott these products, you should let the companies know why, so they can make intelligent decisions moving forward.

One thing is clear, companies are betting on the fact that you're willing to trade your privacy, for the convenience of a web search, social media updates, or the current temperature. For those with accessibility challenges, such as the inability to use a keyboard, these solutions are perhaps worth the privacy trade-off, where privacy friendly solutions don't exist.

While considering if the privacy implications are important to you, it might be useful to think in five to 10 years from now, how much would a future employer, political party, relationship partner, or health care insurance provider pay for access to that information? Are you OK when an employee of one of these companies, or a hacker, gets access to your logs and publishes them?

The question now falls to you, what level of convenience are you willing to be monitored and logged 24/7 for?

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