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Can Your Smart Speaker Spy on You?

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The title of this article probably sounds hilarious to some people. The truth is, it is a matter to be taken quite seriously.  Yes, the thought of a smart speaker spying on you reads like it may have been inspired by a children’s book, but IoT (Internet of Things) privacy issues really are no laughing matter. And no, your smart speaker isn’t some sort of Star Wars R2D2 contraption that can come to life and stare at you while you sleep. But, IoT devices like smart speakers do bring privacy risks associated with them.

In reality, the thought that even a smart speaker is a privacy risk nowadays brings with it a lot of concern surrounding the entire IoT sector. As a result, many have changed their minds about allowing IoT devices into their homes. Even still, IoT privacy risks are a frequent topic of discussion at major IT and cybersecurity conferences.

For these reasons, we need to understand what privacy breaches constitute and how exactly smart speakers fit into that narrative so that you have the necessary awareness when the time comes for you to snap up that shiny new home gadget! Without further ado, let’s begin!

What is a Privacy Breach?

Privacy means the same thing in both the offline and online worlds. As children, we are taught to respect each others ‘privacy.’ This can mean anything from not eavesdropping on others’ conversations to pulling our own blinds down so that our in-home privacy is not breached by gazers and onlookers. The truth is, privacy is a difficult topic to pack into one paragraph, and it gets even more difficult when we talk about privacy online. For most people, online privacy is knowing what happens with one’s personal information that is relayed to the internet while browsing and collected by websites.

You see, the internet collects a host of information about us, particularly if you have not taken privacy measures. Surfing the internet raw means anything you search for and the browser is stored somewhere.

Now, when it comes to smart devices like those of the IoT world, a privacy breach entails what that device does in your home with the information it collects. There are now dozens, if not hundreds of types of IoT smart home devices. The unifying factor is that smart devices are devices that need an internet connection to interact with users.

Since smart devices interact with users, this means they also collect and store data and send that back and forth between the internet and users’ homes. Now, the issue is: precisely what type of data do smart devices collect? Well, let’s take a look at what a smart speaker does next!

How Can a Smart Speaker Compromise Your Privacy

A smart speaker is a self-explanatory concept. It is a speaker that you can buy that is smart. This means that it is an internet-enabled (WiFi) device. Smart speakers come in all shapes and forms today and can be bought at pretty much any basic technology market. It is also very simple to order a smart speaker online. Some of the more popular models are made by major vendors like Amazon and Google. Smart speakers, like most IoT devices, usually require an interface to function. This means that users need to register a device such as a smartphone with the manufacturer’s service (app), as well as give the smart device access to the home’s WiFi network. This way, a smart device can capture information and commands from a user device, and relay that back to the network.

Now, what types of information can a smart speaker collect? First of all, remember that a smart speaker already has access to your local network. Secondly, you should know that smart speakers have built-in microphones. This is to allow a user to use voice commands to give the smart speaker all kinds of ‘smart’ instructions. Not only can these microphones record sound in their surroundings (i.e your living room), they can relay this back to the manufacturer and offer you ‘tailored’ suggestions and options.

One instance of a notorious privacy breach was when a married couple’s conversation was forwarded by a smart speaker to one of their contacts without being explicitly instructed to do so. This is a privacy breach.

On the other hand, smart devices can also be honeypots for hackers. With all of that personal information, hackers will sometimes drop in on an unprotected connection to see if someone is talking about their credit card number or any other personal information they can use.

Limit Your Privacy Breaches

Thankfully, there are ways to limit any breaches of privacy resulting from the use of smart devices. The first is to set these devices up properly. This includes securing your router with a good password, opening a second ‘guest’ connection for your devices that is separate from your main hotspot, configuring the privacy settings in the smart device, and sometimes even manually deleting queries and stored information in the device. Applying multi-factor authentication also does wonders for the security of any smart device.

Finally, remember that anything that is internet-enabled is a risk in your personal surroundings. This is especially true if that device has sensors. Imagine you have a smart TV (which many people do). A smart TV sometimes has both a microphone and a camera! Surely, you can figure out the privacy risks involved there on your own.

As a final effort, you could look at getting a high-end VPN (Virtual Private Network) app running on the device you use to communicate with your smart speaker. This will encrypt and anonymize your connection from potential sniffing and intercept attacks. Again, make sure you’ve secured the source of everything first which is your router/modem. This device needs to be set to WPA2 protection at the minimum, and the password for the router must not be left as the default manufacturer password otherwise none of the above steps will help you stop a cyber-attack.


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