We’re getting into a whole new relationship with technology. Tech makers want us to embrace the “Internet of Things,” especially those that can be used in the household.
Like our smartphones do, smart home devices have prodigious capabilities. Amazon Echo becomes a DJ, spinning up impromptu family dance parties. You can summon the weather report even when you’re elbows deep in soap suds. Internet-connected gadgets become more indispensable when they team up, like when Alexa cues your robot vacuum.
But if you opt to bring these powerful objects into your home, you need to be smart, too. For one thing, you can’t expect 100% privacy. Smart speakers like Google Home not only listen and assist when prompted by their wake word, they also record what they hear.
So, just as we humans need to use our Spidey Sense to sniff out fishy stuff we read online, we also need to be pro-active with devices that have no keyboards or screens.
What to know if you might buy or have already purchased:
ALWAYS-READY SMART SPEAKERS such as Google Home and Amazon Echo
Take charge of their operation
Review the product’s Frequently Asked Questions page, such as the Amazon Echo FAQ. If you use the device, practice good digital hygiene. Regularly review and delete recordings and clear your search history.
- On Amazon, do this by signing into your account to see all your devices on your Manage Your Content and Devices page and then reviewing Alexa settings on the Alexa Privacy page.
- With Google devices, adjust to your permissions and privacy settings on the Privacy Management page. Don’t forget to review and tweak the listen and record settings on your Google activity controls page.
Mute when you want to
When the blue light circles atop Echo, it is storing what you say on Amazon’s servers. Your audio is streamed “a fraction of a second” before you say “Alexa” and continues being recorded until your request is processed. So sometimes, The Guardian reports, “fragments of intimate conversations may be captured.” (That’s why police are requesting data that may have been collected by smart speakers and TVs to help solve crimes.)
You can easily stop Echo and Echo Dot from recording by pressing the microphone button on top. The blue ring turns red when it’s no longer listening.
Mute Google Home with the microphone button on the side or tap the indicator lights on top.
Be careful about location
Keep in mind that voice purchasing is enabled by default on almost all Alexa devices. If you don’t want people accidentally or intentionally ordering up, set a pin that must be used to buy things or turn off voice purchasing altogether.
As a way to protect and serve child customers, Amazon offers the Echo Dot Kids’ Edition. The Kids’ Dot has an unbreakable case, a 2-year warranty, and a 1-year Freetime Unlimited subscription. (see description below). Voice purchasing is automatically turned off in FreeTime on the Kids’ Dot and Amazon officials say no personally-identifiable data is collected on child users.
Still, the child advocacy group Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood recommends against buying the device. “The Echo Dot Kids is another unnecessary ‘must-have’ gadget, and it’s also potentially harmful. AI (artificial intelligence) devices raise a host of privacy concerns and interfere with the face-to-face interactions and self-driven play that children need to thrive,” says CCFC Director Josh Golin. One objection by CCFC and child health advocates is that the Dot prevents boredom, a natural gateway to imagination and creativity.
In 2018, Amazon took it a step further by adding Alexa to third-party smoke detectors such as the OneLink Safe and Sound by First Alert. As with any smoke detector, the OneLink is mounted on the ceiling and immediately becomes invisible and unnoticed by the user. But, in this case, it remains a powerful listening device. These devices can also be managed on the Alexa Privacy page.
ALWAYS-ON HOME CONTROL DEVICES such as Nest thermostat
Home monitoring devices such as the Nest thermostat are made to be constantly online so are also always vulnerable to hacking. To prevent that:
- During setup, if you encounter a default password, ALWAYS CHANGE IT.
- Do not reset with passwords like “abc123” or “password.” Take that extra moment and set a strong password.
Always remember: hackers constantly troll the Internet for weak and factory-set passwords, which are basically digital unlocked doors.
INTERNET-CONNECTED TOYS such as Cognitoys Dino
Internet-connected toys are certainly fun and cute, but they also record conversations and it’s not usually clear what happens to the data. As with Internet-connected baby monitors, Internet-connected toys are also vulnerable to hacking by bad actors who might want to listen to, watch, or interact with a child. The toys can also be given to kids for nefarious purposes, such spying on them and their households.
Even for kids who already have these toys, their parents often “don’t know if and when a toy is actually collecting information and whether it’s turned on or not,” according to Jay Campbell, who does research for the Family Online Safety Institute.
In mid-2017, the Federal Trade Commission issued revised industry guidelines on connected toys and some toy makers are responding. Still, Campbell says, connected toys should but typically don’t do this yet:
- Provide clear privacy notices on packaging and when setting up toys.
- Make it easy to know when the toy is operating and when data is being collected and transmitted.
- Obtain Parents’ consent before information is collected.
- Protect against hackers that would access video or audio of children or use the toy to communicate with children.
When you’re shopping in a store for a toy, there is little to no information about this on the box. However, some products by Hasbro and Mattel do display the Entertainment Software Rating Boards privacy certification.But, until manufacturers prove they’ve taken all the steps needed, it may be wiser—and less risky—to bypass Internet-connected toys for now.
On a brighter note, Amazon is improving its FreeTimeUnlimited experience for kids —and their parents.I feature FreeTime as a “durable human design” in my book because it actually helps parents help their kids develop some positive tech-use habits. FreeTime is a subscription available for the Kindle Fire Kids Edition and Echo Dot Kids Edition that supplies a large array of age-appropriate kid entertainment that is easily managed through a parental control dashboard.
Amazon now also offers Discussion Cards to provide parents with short summaries, sample questions, and ideas for family activities around the thousands of books, videos, apps, and websites Amazon has pre-approved for child users. I demo the FreeTime parent dashboard in this 3-minute video.
DurableHuman.com founder Jenifer Joy Madden is a health journalist, digital media adjunct professor, and author of How To Be a Durable Human: Revive and Thrive in the Digital Age Through the Power of Self-Design. Her work has informed millions on news outlets including ABC News, The Washington Post, Readers Digest, Tech Republic, Thrive Global, and many others.
Download a free PDF copy of Madden’s inspirational, quick-read The Durable Human Manifesto: Practical Wisdom for Living and Parenting in the Digital World here.
Also, get this free checklist for how to plan your family’s time wisely around technology and everything else.
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