No, Your Smart Speaker Isn’t Eavesdropping on You

It’s just not worth the effort

  • Creepy and relevant online ads make many people believe that their smart devices are listening to their conversations.
  • Experts, however, dismiss the idea, arguing that it is most likely due to our subconscious online activity.
  • Experts say that collecting information just to show relevant online ads is not worth it, since we willingly provide this information all the time.

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Do you feel like big tech uses smart devices to listen in on your conversations?

It’s something we’ve all experienced, and now Columbia University researchers have devised a method to prevent malicious microphones from capturing our conversations. Interestingly, one of the use cases for their new mechanism is to disrupt automatic speech recognition systems on speech-enabled smart devices.

“Have you ever noticed ads following you online that are suspiciously close to something you recently discussed with friends and family?” asks Columbia University in its research essay. “Microphones are built into almost everything today, from our phones, watches, and TVs to voice assistants, and they’re always listening.”

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Brian Chappell, chief security strategist at BeyondTrust rejects the idea outright. He told Lifewire via email that the main culprit in every story pointing to a device eavesdropping on our conversations is our inherently flawed memory.

Matt Middleton-Leal, general manager for Northern Europe at Qualys, told Lifewire by email that it’s natural for people to assume their devices are tracking their conversations, especially when they receive a recommendation for an unknown product. long after having a conversation about it.

“However, this is not the case: the computing power needed to listen to everyone, all the time, if you could recommend products in an ad, would be beyond what is available,” Middleton-Leal said. .

He also believes the creepy recommendations are likely based on browsing history and social media patterns, which are less obvious. “There’s also all the other times you have a conversation and you don’t get a recommendation, you don’t remember!” says Middleton-Leal.

BeyondTrust Senior Cybersecurity Researcher James Maude also points out our forgetfulness. He told Lifewire that online advertising companies have fine-tuned their algorithms to pick up referral signals from all sorts of places, as well as our interactions, including some that we may not have consciously recorded. .

“Even subtle things, like pausing slightly on a canoe ad that catches your eye while scrolling through social media, can trigger not only targeted ads, but also annoying conversations about canoes with friends, family and colleagues,” Maude said.

It’s not worth the effort

Our fears are not entirely unfounded. In 2018, The New York Times reported that Google and Amazon had filed patents describing various uses of their smart speakers to “further monitor what users say and do.”

Chappell says that virtually all smart devices with voice interfaces rely on a wake word to begin processing speech. The saving grace is that this initial recognition of the trigger word happens locally on the device and not on a remote server on the Internet. Local detection of the trigger word was driven by privacy concerns.

“These devices are also under intense scrutiny due to the potential for misuse,” Chappell said.

Close-up of a diverse group of office colleagues using a smart speaker together

Marko Geber/Getty Images

But that doesn’t mean these devices can’t be compromised. Colin Pape, founder of Presearch, firmly believes that any system can be penetrated. “Most consumers have never worked with a security researcher and don’t understand the lengths hackers will go to break into a system,” Pape said in an email exchange with Lifewire.

He is of the opinion that people should always operate under the assumption that all devices can be broken and stop to think about what information they are willing to give.

“If you choose to have an Alexa or any other assistant device, it’s important to understand that the device doesn’t need to know all of your information,” Pape suggested. “If there’s something you’d rather not disclose to the public, there are plenty of other ways to safely discover information or find help with everyday activities.”

Chappell, however, believes the blame lies elsewhere. “Especially in an age when people are happy to give away most of their information in exchange for ‘free’ games or apps, you don’t need subterfuge to get valuable information,” he said. “A compromised device could be used to collect information, but it takes a lot of effort and [money] offer targeted ads.

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