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Alexa Privacy Concerns and Why Companies Must Care

Alexa privacy concerns and more remote workers underscore a need to figure internet-connected devices into security planning.

It’s amazing when you think about how many of the electronic devices in our homes and offices are connected to the internet. In fact, it can be difficult to find an electronic device that doesn’t require connectivity. And, today, when our homes and offices are often one and the same, seemingly mundane connected objects--such as refrigerators, fireplaces and, yes, even curling irons--can put privacy and security at risk. This is why companies must figure Google Home and Alexa privacy concerns into their strategic remote work and security plans.

The only ways to completely avoid being spied on is to use only devices that predate the mainstream adoption of the internet or go completely off the grid. Of course, those are not realistic options for most people and, by extension, the organizations they work for. A better option is to identify the most egregiously intrusive devices in end users’ lives, and then take steps to teach those users how to limit the information that connected devices are able to collect.

Of course, this is easier said than done. For example, many people have had Google Home and Amazon Alexa privacy concerns--namely, that these digital assistants are listening to us at all times. However, these smart digital assistants can’t function if they are not listening for commands. As such, disabling the microphone on such a device would essentially render the device useless.

One company seems to have found a way to keep Amazon Echo devices from eavesdropping, without disabling the device in the process.

The aptly named Paranoid Home has recently released a collection of innovative products that are designed to limit what Amazon Echo (and, in some cases, Google) devices are able to hear.

Paranoid offers three different solutions--each for less than $50--for securing smart speaker devices.

Paranoid Home Button is designed to physically push your smart speaker’s mute button. The device has its own onboard speech recognition engine that is totally separate from the ones used by Google and Alexa devices. The device keeps the smart speaker’s mute button engaged at all times. When the device hears the word “paranoid, it disengages the device’s mute button for long enough to allow you to speak a command. When you are done, the device once again mutes the device.

As unique as this concept may be, it poses a big, meta question. If Amazon, Google and other devices can spy on you, what’s to stop the Paranoid device from doing the same?

The Paranoid Home Button seems to be physically incapable of spying. While it does constantly listen for its wake word, the device is not Wi-Fi-enabled, nor does it use Bluetooth. Paranoid devices are designed to be entirely self contained and do not connect to the Internet.

The other question that must be asked is how much do you trust the smart device vendors? How confident are you that when you press your smart speaker’s mute button, its microphone is actually being disabled?

Since that second question is a bit more difficult to answer, Paranoid is offering two other options that are intended for use in situations in which a device does not have a mute button or the mute button is not trusted. Paranoid Home Wave is a voice-activated solution that allows the smart speaker’s microphone to be engaged upon hearing the wake word. Rather than physically pressing a mute button, however, Paranoid Home Wave generates noise and interference that is imperceptible to the human ear but is sufficient to jam the smart speaker device, preventing it from listening. There is no word on how the Paranoid Home Wave avoids jamming its own microphone. Paranoid Home Max is an even more extreme solution: You have to ship your smart speaker to the Paranoid service center, and a technician disassembles the device and physically cuts the microphone wire. The Paranoid circuitry is then installed as a microphone bypass.

Paranoid's efforts are interesting, but it is important to remember that the issue Paranoid is attempting to mitigate is bigger than just your Amazon Echo or Google Home device. For example, Alexa and Google Home features are being integrated into other types of devices. Neutralizing your smart speaker may not be all that beneficial if there is an Alexa app installed on your smartphone, for example--especially if that smartphone is being used for, say, the dozen or so Zoom meetings you are having each day. And as mentioned earlier, smart technology is being integrated into so many devices that it can be easy to forget that it's there.

Paranoid’s solution is a good option for preventing unwanted eavesdropping from our smart speaker devices--but it may be an even more important reminder to individuals and businesses to figure the increasing use of smart technology into their remote work and holistic privacy and security planning.



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