So, you’ve bought a new smart assistant and it sits proudly in the center of your coffee table.

Whether you have an Amazon Echo, a Google Home, or are thinking about buying a new Harman Kardon Cortana speaker, it will keep your life much more organized.

But at what cost? What security and privacy threats are you exposed to? Here are five safety pitfalls of using speaker-based smart assistants.

1. Who is listening?

If a Google representative shows up on your doorstep and asks you to listen to your house with mini microphones, I think most of you will respond with profanity.

What’s so special about the new class of speaker-based smart assistants? It’s like deliberately allowing a giant corporation to attack your personal space. It’s amazing how quickly public opinion changes. In early 2015, there was anger over TV . Today we are asking companies to listen.

spy man
Image credit: Andrey Burmakin via Shutterstock

And let’s be clear: Speakers are always listening. Of course, they only react when they hear the activation phrase, but they listen to that phrase all the time. Google acknowledged that some of this background audio is stored locally, but declined to say how long it was stored.

Can a hacker tune in and listen to everything in your house? With the recent controversy over baby monitors, the threat seems very real. You certainly shouldn’t put the device in a place where you discuss highly sensitive topics.

2. Data storage

At least the devices aren’t broadcasting all your conversations (yet), so let’s get to the fact that it’s always listening. What happens when you actively participate in it?

The presenter collects data and sends it to the company’s central servers, which process your request. Sounds good, but what about data storage?

The answers may surprise you. Google Home and Amazon Alexa save audio snippets and register them to their account. You can hear all your previous requests by logging into your account. What if someone gains unauthorized access? There may be a lot of personal information stored there.

At least you can delete those stories. But you can’t do anything with all the aggregated data stored on the servers of Google or Amazon. Companies use it to improve the assistant by scanning for updates several times a day.

As for Apple, it keeps Siri requests tagged with your device IDs for six months and then keeps raw audio for another 18 months.

3. Surround sound

The audio snippets that the speaker sends to Google or Amazon contain more than just your queries. The nature of the devices means that they are going to perceive background «ambient» audio.

Think about it: Recordings can show what TV shows you watch, what sports you like, what pets you have, what time of day you are at home, what is your family’s sex ratio, what kind of music do you like, and much, much more. .

It is naive to think that Google and Amazon will simply discard this data. For them, it’s like gold dust — all this will go towards creating your advertising profile.

You might have a casual conversation about what new car to buy while someone else is using the assistant. Google will match your voice with your Google ID and after a few seconds it will show you car ads.

This is scary.

4. Law enforcement

How long will it take before countries start passing laws allowing police to activate a smart assistant and listen to suspects remotely?

We’re on our way. All the NSA are spying on the last few years are well documented and the UK has just passed an extremely controversial law. allowing everything from the Food Standards Agency to the Department of Labor and Pensions to access the history of all residents. Other countries are following the same path.

nsa chip
Image Credit: Carsten Reisinger via Shutterstock

Some of you may say that this is good. If surveillance can help keep the public safe, the law should allow it. But where does it stop? And who will follow the spies? And what stops cybercriminals from using the same methods that law enforcement might use?

I hope you read 1984…

5. Danger of being used by someone else

One of Alexa’s biggest selling points is its ability to order things directly from Amazon. It’s not hard to imagine that one day it will become the main showcase for the online giant.

But this raises problems. If someone steals your device, can they spend hundreds of dollars on your credit card before you have a chance to react? This is unthinkable.

There are also security implications in your home. At the moment, Alexa is not smart enough to recognize its owner’s voice from other people’s voices. This means that anyone in your home has access to all the apps you have associated with Alexa. Strangers can top up your bank account, your naughty kids can secretly buy the new toy they want, and friends can order random items as a joke.

Presumably this will become less of an issue as technology advances, but it’s a concern right now.

Convenience or Disaster?

I’m not saying speaker-based smart assistants are all bad, and I’m certainly not saying you shouldn’t have one in your home. But you should be aware of the trade-off, the added convenience comes at a potentially catastrophic price.

Is it worth it? It’s up to you.

What do you think of smart assistants? Are you using one? Are you concerned about security and privacy issues? Or should they be at the forefront of consumer technology?

Let me know your thoughts and feedback in the comments section below.

Image Credit: SpeedKingz and Andrey Makurin via

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