How safe are Amazon Echo and Google Home?

Questions grow about how much they hear and record
Posted at 3:15 PM, May 23, 2018
and last updated 2018-05-23 15:15:45-04

Smart homes are here to stay. Many of us now have an Amazon Echo or Google Home and are adding video doorbells, automatic door locks and other automation features.

But how can you make sure you are keeping your family safe and not sharing your most private moments with the world?

Digital assistants doing more and more

It all started with Amazon's Echo digital assistant, which in the beginning played music and answered our basic questions.

Then along came Google Home, and soon we were using voice assistants to ask who's at the front door, open up the garage and adjust the lights.

Now, almost two years later, digital assistants are flying off the shelves at Best Buy, loved by busy moms like Amanda Compton, who we found shopping with her toddler at a Best Buy store.

"It does a lot of work for you when you have kids," she said. "It kind of helps out a lot."

Google vs Amazon

The first thing you'll notice when you are looking at smart home devices is that there are two different universes. You have the option of purchasing Google Home or Amazon's Echo, each selling for around $100 (though simplified models cost less.)

Apple recently launched the Home Pod, though is it a bit late to the game and at $350 is much more expensive than the competition. Like the Apple Watch, it appears aimed at a more upscale audience.

Each works with its own set of apps and devices, though in the end they are pretty much the same, according to Best Buy's Brian Gibson.

Which is better? Gibson says its really just personal choice. All of them will control cameras, your thermostat, smart lights, even smart door locks.

How vulnerable are you?

But some security experts are sounding the alarm.

IT security consultantDavid Hatter says a vulnerability in one of your devices can let a hacker watch your video cameras, maybe even access your bank account, if they are all on the same WiFi network.

"If someone can break into your washing machine," Hatter explained, "and then into your door lock, they can potentially break into your house or your bank account."

He says many people set up smart devices leaving the default password, which is often as simple as 1-2-3-4.

"If you just buy a smart thermostat and don't change any of the settings, you're ripe for hacking," he said.

He says Echo and Google home units themselves are fairly secure, but it is the peripherals that are more vulnerable.

Hatter says to protect yourself:

  • Change the default password on every smart device.
  • Put the computer you use for banking on a separate WiFi network if possible (most cable company internet routers give you this option). This prevents a hacker from getting into your baby monitor or thermostat, and accessing your bank account or tax information.
  • Keep digital assistants out of bedrooms, because you can't be 100% certain they're not listening, Hatter says.

"In theory, they are not recording things until you say the activation phrase for your device (such as "Alexa"). But once you say that phrase, it records whatever you say, and sends it to their servers," he said.

So up in the cloud somewhere is a recording of what you said after you said "Alexa."  How long does it record? Some studies claim it can hold onto voice conversations for at least several minutes, if not longer.

You may want to periodicallyerase recordings in your Echo, Hatter says, just to be safe.

Best Buy's Gibson says there is no need to be afraid of technology. He says the good news is that you can tone down the tech, such as setting locks so they won't open by voice.

"You can set it so it only locks the door with your voice," he said. "But it won't unlock the door." 

Just like with smartphones, and home computers a decade earlier, smart home devices are not going away.

But take security precautions every step of the way, so you don't waste your money.


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