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How do we know that our smart home devices aren't listening?

I am a personal injury lawyer based out in Louisiana. I have purchased a smart home device, and I am concerned about what it is listening to even when not prompted. How do we know that our smart home devices are not listening and collecting information on us? For those of you who own devices like an Echo or Google Home or similar device, do you have concerns about this? I like to hear your opinions.

--Submitted by Bart B.

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Dear Bart B
Incorrect home location

Many of the Google Home requests -- like weather or traffic updates, all need location data to give you accurate results. If your home or work addresses are not set correctly, the weather or other information Google Home provides will be inaccurate or unhelpful.
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No way no how!

I’ve always been on the bleeding edge of technology but absolutely drew the line on having any of these devices in my home. They’ve all self admitted to recording and storing (even if it’s short term) your input...they don’t need it even if it’s for “improving the product”. To me it’s not much different than having someone from Google or Amazon or Facebook follow you around your house 24 X 7 and recording you. Sorry, I’m perfectly capable of getting off my butt to turn on a light in exchange for a little privacy.

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What about the phone that you carry with you everywhere?

If you have an iPhone, Samsung, etc smart phones, they all are waiting for the wake commands so it is essentially always listening, right? Like for iPhones, "Hey Siri", what's the difference between these phones and these home devices? Smart phones go where ever you go, doesn't that make it worse that it is always with you?

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Siri Who?

I have yet to activate Siri on any of my iPhones.

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Mine Doesn't

The feature to allow Siri without pressing a button can only be done if two things happen:

1. You turn the feature on in Settings (off by default)

2. The feature is only supposed to work if the iphone is charging.

I don't have that on. However, I was working for child support a while ago and I had to use the law enforcement interface on a carrier website and they can do a LOT more with cell phones than people think. (Subpoena required).

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My phone doesn't listen

Just torn the voice feature OFF!

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According to Law Enforcement Websites I've Been On

You can turn the entire phone off completely. What I saw on a carrier's law enforcement interface website (subpoena required), would shock you.

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So no hey assistant on your phone ether

Did you read the full article? He points out that phones have been doing this for years and they with you more of the day than your speaker.
The answer is to use an assistant from a company that doesn't use your data to make money, which means Apple. Google & Amazon make most of their money by gathering data about you and using it or selling it.

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So no hey

How do you know Apple is different? I would be very surprised to learn that they are better than Google and others.

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apple is Different

You can't just yell, "Hey, Siri..." without enabling that feature and the phone has to be charging even if you do. Otherwise, I just hold the home button.... Of course any device with a microphone can be used by either hackers or law enforcement (with the right subpoenas).

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All the time!

I don't/won't have one of these things in my house - "someone" listening in all the time is not my idea of "A man's home is his castle". And they have to listen all the time - how else do they know you shouted "Hey Google" or whatever at it?

The suppliers have admitted to storing what they hear and even transcribed it in some cases. If they promise to be good, would you trust them to resist temptation or being forced to supply the information to some three letter acronym organization?

There is, of course, a guaranteed way to stop them listening - turn them off!

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Attention Span of Electronic Devices

To me, a secure device is a disconnected device. Better yet, remember that the length of the attention span of all electronic/electric devices is the same at the length of the power cord. (More modern version includes batteries!)

So yank out whatever power source (cord or batteries) the device has to secure your device. Otherwise, you are ALWAYS in jeopardy!

No two ways about it.

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More than just smart home devices

I've got bad news and worse news. It's not just your smart home hub that's listening to you all the time. Anything that has an AI assistant is listening and sending information to the cloud. Have a smart home device? It's listening. Have a digital assistant on your phone? It's listening. FireTV? Listening. Smart speaker? Listening. Smartwatch? Probably listening. Some are smarter than others.
Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri, Cortana, and all the rest work basically the same way. They listen for the wake word all the time. All or almost all of the natural language processing is done in the cloud. Most of the results are performed in the cloud: search, weather, time, news, games, jokes, etc.
Everything that is said is at least sampled to improve speech recognition and accuracy of results. And those are just the non-invasive uses of what you say.
Take the new Facebook Portal devices. Facebook has such a sterling record for privacy and ethical use of user data. And those devices are watching and listening all the time.
Smart devices and digital assistants are always listening because that's how they work. Video devices are probably(?) watching all the time, too.
I try to follow the example of Marvin Boggs, a character played by John Malkovich in the movies Red and Red 2.

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Smart home watchers

On Dutch TV they showed, that Google had installed a microphone in a device which was not in the electric scheme, they apologised for that.
It is hard for me to trust these people again.
In smart-tv's there is a camera, it is supposed to check if kids are watching wrong content... but hey, they can watch us too.
This is ridiculous, right?

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you supposed to research first

you are supposed to research the device before buying unless you have ulterior motives as a lawyer.

the reality is, everything is watching you these days from license plate readers to your shopping habits at the local store. from your cable box to your smartphone. from your web habits to your smarthome devices.

Yes theres give and take. It is up to you to decide what to risk. personally I am not that concerned. I have alexa and use it regularly for the convenience. yes it is always listening but it won't find out anything new because most of my data is most likely already out there in some database.

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I always assume they are listening

and like having small children around. I always assume that all these "smart" devices are paying attention. I assume that many places I go are recording one way or another. And as far as I can see there is usually someone around with a cell phone to video or record most anything.
Still I own and use Google Assistant, cell phones, tablets etc. I think that is life now and like many things we have to learn to live with it - positive and negative.

I do have a place in the country where there is no cell coverage, electricity is sporadic and thus even our limited satellite internet mostly does not work. This also means that we can't pump water, use microwaves and other things on a frequent basis. That is ok for a little while but I prefer my city place for longer term living. In the country place I also cannot contact my bank or call for emergency help as I can only use a land line if the electricity is on and the phone line hasn't been eaten by squirrels.

In the country I am truly on my own. In the city I have community. So those are the trade-offs. You can live in a wired place and only plug in basic things when it suits you and have nearly the same experience except for being tracked by CCTV etc. if it suits you. I guess it all depends upon your degree of paranoia and/or need for privacy. Most of us, not being famous, are pretty annonymous. Even before all of the current tracking most of the information we thought was private really was not. Anyone wanting to find out about most other people could pay a small fee and get a pretty complete report. For a larger fee you could get a larger report. It has been hard to hide for a very long time.

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I always assume they are listening

You may want to reconsider your total lack of interest in privacy. Even if you are not "famous", you are known to people in your life. No-one should be able to know what you are doing at any one time, unless you want them to, on a one-by-one basis.

Your land line telephone does NOT need electricity to work, unless it's a wireless phone. You can buy an analogue phone from yesteryear and then you are able to call out anyone, including 911, even without any electricity. Just inspect your phone cable outside on a regular basis, or just pick up the headset to make sure you have a dial tone. Good luck.

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Landlines Were the Original Spy

Of course, someone would have to open the phone up and place a special device in it. Called a "wiretap". But that was old technology ages ago.

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Only some of them...

The old PSTN phones need no external power supply, as you say, the power to drive them, usually 50 volts, is carried on the copper communication wires.

Fibre optic landlines need power to an optical to electrical converter, usually mounted where the fibres come into your house.

VOIP landlines, adopted by Australia and soon to be by the UK, come in on the data lines to your modem/router, which, of course requires power.

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Yeah, just try to get a regular phone line

I have a wired landline phone, and not only does Verizon "offer" to upgrade to Fios cable for free, they have told me that they can no longer perform any repairs on my old outdated wire. The next time I have a problem they are switching me to cable. So 24 hours of backup battery for phone service in the event of a power outage. Yeah, no.

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In home repairs are no longer offered.

For in home, or more technically "on the other side of the demarc" you have electricians repair or install your phone wiring in the home.

They only provide up to that demarcation line.

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Don't have them in your home

I will not have these devices in my home. I am not willing to compromise my security for the small bit of convenience they afford. I worried enough about what my computer and phone can keep track of - home devices just aren't worth it to me. I can turn on the lights, radio, etc. all on my own.

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They aren't - until they are

Here's the short of it. 90% of the paranoia is unfounded conspiracy theory. These devices don't "listen" unless they are given the wake word. Yes, they are always listening in the sense that the microphone is on waiting for your command (though many devices can be set so that they can only be woken up with a button push). The question you want to ask is, "Do they eavesdrop?" and the answer to that would be an emphatic no.

I say 90% (and in reality, it's probably closer to 99%) because sometimes the devices will mistake what they hear for the wake word and start listening/recording.

People fear what they do not understand, and technology is one of the greatest misunderstood subjects. You want reassurance? Disconnect it from wifi. It can record all day long but can't transit. Or better yet, unplug it. No power, no recording.

But honestly, all of that is completely unnecessary. There have been a ton of experts like myself that have torn them down and analyzed every chip on their circuit boards. Not to mention run network packet sniffing tools to see what data (if any) is being sent out to the mothership.

The short of it is that they aren't up to anything nefarious, they don't eavesdrop on you, and the reason real people transcribe what you do say to it is so that they can improve the product. So for example - if you have a southern American accent, the way you say, "What's the weather for today?" is going to sound different from a New Yorker. AI can't tell the difference. They are looking for specific words (within a programmed margin of tolerance) and to improve on that, real people who CAN tell the difference between a NY and a southern accent transcribe what you say so it can go to the engineers who will feed it back to the AI. That way when they hear "weathur" versus "wethuh" the device will learn that both speakers are saying, "weather."

I hope that clears things up for you.

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I agree to a point

The issue is not that they are listening. It is that most of the providers tell you flat out that if it is triggered, the information it picks up is fair game to use to build your social graph, your habits, your likes and dislikes. Further this data can be used to market to you by other companies who pay up for the privilege.
So although I'm not paranoid, I choose to work with a company that is not nearly as interested because marketing is now where they make their money.

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There are documented cases of these devices spying without the "wake" word. A family received a copy of an entire evening's conversations. Yes, was in the news. Of course, if the word "Alexa" is mentioned on the radio or TV and someone has this device.... anything can happen.

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Not eaves-dropping

You examined them and you say they don't eavesdrop.
You are not worried, these companies install these options.
My question is why would they want to install this?
If a journalist wants to visit Google, it is hard to get in,
yet they know everything about us.

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Why Emphatic "NO"?

Have you an insight into the devices inner workings or did you just read the manual. If a device is connected to the Internet, it usually can be hacked. An, as for eavesdropping, the correct comment should be "we have no idea (but HOPE not). Not many people believed companies like Google would create dossiers on people (until Google said so in their documents).

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Coincidences should not be ignored

Like others, I also have to disagree that they aren't listening despite not being prompted with the wake word. I'm not sure what's involved in looking at all of these devices and their components, but there are certain coincidences that others have shared (and my own experience) that I think we should not take lightly.

In my first hand experience, there were 2 separate instances where my "paranoia" was somewhat confirmed. In the first case, I had my Google Next Hub playing YouTube Music. My 5 yr old daughter was at home sick one day and was coughing a lot. Next thing I know, one of the ads in between songs is specific to cough medicine. That was the first time I ever heard a targeted ad like that. And no, I never asked Google any coughing or sickness related questions for it to build a history around that. I also do not have that Google account linked anywhere else where it would have potentially picked up on any web browsing history (which I also did not do on any Google accounts that I have).

The 2nd example happened a day or two days later. Again, an ad came on in between songs from YouTube Music that was for a Google Pixel 4. But the ad was spoken in Spanish. We do not speak Spanish in our household except for when my 3 yr old son is either counting or saying his colors in Spanish. That's it. We have never asked Google to translate any English words into Spanish to confirm what he was saying to be true.

So, you can say that there is a 99% possibility that it can not (and does not) listen unless spoken to. But I can say that I'm not so sure anymore given my own experiences.

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I try to be cautious.

I don't use Alexa, Siri, or any device that requires me to speak to it. The problem is, many apps work through the microphone on my phone. I have gone through all the settings to turn off the microphone. It's very time consuming, and I'm never sure I have them all.
I have friends who say they had a conversation in a restaurant and the got ads targeted to that conversation. So far I have not experienced that. Hopefully either I'm being careful enough, or nobody cares about me LOL.
I do get ads targeting things I have already bought online.
It's getting harder and harder to keep up with the technology!!

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What about our political and economic leaders?

Never mind you. You’re “just” a Louisiana lawyer. History has demonstrated that anything can be hacked, including election machines, major banks and the cloud. I assume someone has kept these things out of the White House, but what about the homes and offices of other national leaders, legislators, administrators and legal personnel? Not to mention major CEOs and others — even lowly employees in the know — who routinely discuss topics internally regarding situations of interest to inside traders, competition and foreign governments? And for someone in the mob, we can probably assume warrants can be obtained. Which brings us back to you, the lawyer.

Post was last edited on November 1, 2019 5:42 PM PDT

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