Smart speaker
Image credit: BENCE BOROS on Unsplash

In 2018, Oregon citizen Danielle got a shock when her Amazon Echo device not only recorded a conversation in her home, but also sent it to one of her husband’s colleagues. While it was a harmless conversation about flooring, when the news broke, many people began looking at their devices with suspicion.

Smart tech has the ability to make our lives so much easier. Even just being able to play music on every speaker in the house without even having to press a button is a convenience many of us don’t want to give up.

So, what are the risks of smart devices, and how can we best protect ourselves? Keep reading for some tips to improve your smart home security.

What counts as smart technology?

When it comes to smart technology, the obvious items come to mind: smart speakers and doorbells, for example. However, quite a lot of household items come under the umbrella of smart tech.

Smart devices are, technically speaking, objects that can be programmed. Think along the lines of a coffee maker or a microwave, but can also include objects like smart bulbs. These are items that can be set up to run alone, but don’t record or capture data.

Smart-connected devices, on the other hand, are controlled remotely and can be monitored. These are the items you may have seen on the news for security breaches; these are also the items that you might naturally think of when the subject of smart technology comes up.

These devices are part of the Internet of Things, another name for the physical devices that can connect with the internet (and each other).

Ring doorbells, Alexa, and more – what smart technology captures

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Let’s start by looking at the kind of information smart technology can capture in your home.

Ring-style doorbells are an obvious culprit here: designed to protect your property from intruders, these doorbells alert you to visitors and show you a live feed of your doorstep. This means it can capture footage from your front door and can record audio too.

Smart speakers, like Amazon Alexa or Google Nest, are essentially recording devices that are always switched on in your home. They can capture audio or video, depending on the model you’ve chosen. Technically, smart speakers don’t start recording until you say the trigger word (for example, ‘Alexa’). However, these devices can easily mistake other words for the trigger word and start recording without you intending to alert them.

Meanwhile, devices like smart thermostats, smart fridges, and fitness trackers can record something equally important to your privacy: data. While it may not seem like a big deal if someone leaks the temperature of your home every day, data privacy is important, and breaches of your data can lead to identity theft or even physical danger.

What do companies do with your data?

Let’s look at what companies are supposed to do with this collected information.

If a smart speaker starts recording, this data is uploaded via Wi-Fi to cloud storage. You should be able to access these recordings at any time and delete them if you want to.

Any recordings – whether by smart speaker, ring doorbell, or any other device – should be stored securely. These recordings should be encrypted, which essentially protects the confidentiality of your data.

Can companies like Google or Amazon share your data with third parties? This is a difficult question to answer. Amazon state that they never sell customers’ data. Instead, they use it to train their algorithms to recommend content that you might enjoy.

However, in practise, this seems to be a bit less clear. A study named Your Echoes Are Heard: Tracking, Profiling, and Ad Targeting in the Amazon Smart Speaker Ecosystem suggests that data is used to bring targeted ads to customers, with a specific look at voice data from smart speakers.

Many people are calling for stricter legislation when it comes to the privacy of user data. In the meantime, it’s best to err on the side of caution and presume that your data – whether it’s recordings from your smart speaker or the number of times you open your smart fridge every day – could be used to bring you targeted ads.

About unsupported technology

Another factor to consider is unsupported technology. Simply put, you could be at risk if your smart devices last longer than the support given for it by the original provider. If your device stops updating, it can reveal small holes in your security armour: this means that hackers could get in via old, outdated items.

Your best bet in this case is to ensure that each gadget you own is up to date; if you need to install updates, do it straight away.

Safety tips for smart technology

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There’s always a small risk when you introduce smart technology into your home, but with a few safety provisions in place, a security breach is less likely.

Buy from known brands

While it’s tempting to grab a bargain online, it’s better to stick with big brands. Unknown brands may be less secure: for example, a Which? test showed that cheaper smart doorbells were at far higher risk of security breaches.

Install updates

Whenever your smart device needs an update, make sure you take a few moments to do it. Hackers rely on older, outdated technology, so staying one step ahead is really important.

Set up two-factor authentication

Two-factor authentication is a good idea no matter what tech you’re using – whether you’re signing up for social media or setting up your smart speaker. It’s not available for every device, but if it is, make the most of it!

Two-factor authentication means that you can’t just input your password to log in. Instead, you’ll have to input the password, then input a unique code that will be sent to your phone. It’s another layer of security that is particularly important if your smart device can place orders online (for example, Alexa).

Change your passwords regularly

I know it’s a pain; everyone hates changing their passwords! However, getting into the habit of regularly updating your passwords is a good idea. Use a combination of letters, numbers, and special characters to make it harder for anyone to guess what it is.

Hopefully, this has given you some practical ideas on how to improve your home security. You don’t have to chuck your smart speakers in the bin, but it’s definitely a good idea to think about the potential risks whenever you bring a new smart device into your home – whether it’s a fridge, a doorbell, or even a coffee maker!

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