Home > Blog > Big Brother In Your Living Room? Alexa, Cortana, Siri & Co – Smart Home Devices
Smart Devices Big Brothers

Big Brother In Your Living Room? Alexa, Cortana, Siri & Co – Smart Home Devices

Introduction

Smart Home Devices (or Connected Home Appliances) are among the biggest technological consumer trends in 2018. Especially “Smart Speakers” play a leading role in this technological evolution. These massively networked devices, supposedly supported by Artificial Intelligence (AI), are massively pushed by global mega-corporations and are finding their way into the homes of many people. Designed to not only bridge but to ignore the gap between smartphones or tablets and classic laptops and PCs, these devices are based on the idea that a user can conveniently use voice commands or hand gestures to search the internet, play specific music, to shop online or to control other networked devices in the household, etc.

In this article we take a look on their specific features, cover the potential for misuse of the data involved, as well as possible implications for future societal developments and parallels to dystopian fiction. If you would like to add or discuss your experiences and views regarding networked or smart home appliances and similar devices, the comment function under the article is open to you.

Current Smart Home Devices & Advanced Features

The current market for smart home devices in regards to smart speakers (as of January 2018) is dominated by the developers of AI-supported voice analyzing software, namely Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft. Especially Amazon (Alexa) has cornered the home consumer market with their Amazon Echo smart speaker family and the built-in integration of their Amazon shop and other related services. Apple (Siri) has – besides their mobile applications of Siri on smartpones – their “Apple HomePod” hardware, while Google (Google Assistant) is establishing the “Google Home” product family and is dominating the mobile voice search via their own Android OS. There are also 3rd party products by other corporations, which use the software of the companies mentioned above on their own hardware: Harman’s “Harman Kardon Invoke” (Microsoft Cortana), Sono’s “Sonos One” (Amazon Alexa & Google Assistant), Sony’s “LF-S50G” (Google Assistant), JBL’s “JBL Link” (Google Assistant).1

The new generation of smart home devices has an interesting as well as questionable list of capabilities. Let’s have a closer look on some of these more advanced features:

(Individual) Voice Recognition

The ability to use voice commands to control the devices and trigger certain actions is the main feature of these type of hardware. However, much progress was made in regards to the recognition of users and many devices are able to identify individual users by their voice and are able to save and load specific profiles attributed to them. Content and service providers are therefore able to target consumers specifically and try to appeal to their personal needs and wishes and to gather further consumer data.

By the way, another feature that is related to the voice recognition includes the almost instant translation capabilities. A feature that especially Google is putting much effort in, to further advance its own, platform-independent, “Google Translate” service and to gather useful data for it.

Wireless Multi-Room Listening & Streaming

A lot of the new smart devices have the ability to connect to a multitude of microphones and speakers across several rooms wirelessly. It’s up to the individual user to set up the hardware as they please. From the kitchen and living room to the bedroom, or even summer house and basement – it’s up to the user to decide where to place the devices (as long as they are in range of the same wifi signal, it works). The idea behind it is that users could use their digital servants not only in one room like in the 1st hardware generation but all across their household to access services and the internet without having to grab other hardware like smartphones.

The possibility to give multiple users in different rooms control over the smart device functions with just having to use one base device further underlines this approach. On the other hand, the companies are benefiting from the expanded valuable input data. You get to know much more about specific household members in different situations of daily life and can therefore acquire more detailed profiles of individual users.

Gesture Control / Camera Additions

The ability to combine and connect the smart devices with other hightech products in the household has been a talking point for smart speakers since their introduction to the market. The possibility to combine them with certain camera types in rooms of the owner’s choice gives the users the ability to also control parts of their functionality via hand gestures. This gets advertized and offered as a convenient way for people to use basic features without even having to speak a single word.

By the way, some devices even offer a compatibility with private security cameras and connected security networks.

Dystopian Aspects of Smart Home Devices

The feature lists and the capabilities of the new generation of smart devices look like the wet dream of any totalitarian intelligence agency. The ability to observe and to listen to everything within someone’s home has always been an important part of control and surveillance groups. That’s also the reason why I chose a scene from the cinematic adaptation of George Orwell’s “1984” as featured image on top of this article – to illustrate the parallels to this well-known dystopian fiction.

However, the reality seems even crazier than fiction: You don’t have to bug most people actively by yourself or by oppressive regulations anymore. The fictitious Big Brother screens from “1984” are mandatory omnipresent installations, regulated and controlled by a totalitarian government. In our reality, people are willing to place microphones and cameras all over their home on their own, happily, just for the sake of convenience and due to their allegiance to brands, consumer trends and just to be able to show that they own the newest gadgets. The use is not mandatory but as time and technology progress the social pressure to use smart devices rises.

Of course, we currently have no absolute global authority or institution (at least not that we know of) that has the capabilities to check and control all these interconnected devices. The data streams of millions of people, full of everyday conversations, search queries and all kinds of private data are flowing straight to the data vaults of the global corporations. They are lying there silently, getting analyzed and processed for a multitude of applications and reasons.

This does not mean that their use has to lead to vicious or malevolent activities at all. In the end, for the corporations it is all about the money. So their focus lies on the use of all this big data to make personalized marketing easier and/or to push their data-hungry research on artificial intelligences (AIs). However, there is no way to know how these mountains of data get handled in the future, how safe they actually are and who will have access to it for whatever reasons. In a world full of all kinds of unsecure hardware2, that is in active use and interconnected with each other, no one can give an absolute guarantee of data security.

Criminal Potential of Smart Home Devices

No digital data storage or connected device is 100% safe, if there are also people or organizations involved that want to get their hands (and eyes) on any group of people with opposing views or status. However, the same goes for various criminals with simple monetary reasons. Just some basic example:

John Doe, working in the middle management of tech company XYZ in the US, suddenly gets blackmailed by a black hat hacking group from China. Why? Because the smart speaker in Johnny’s bedroom recorded him banging his affair last month and the data stream got hijacked somewhere between the home of his family and the corporate data vaults of his smart gadgets. Based on the additional data from one of his conversations in the kitchen, just a week ago, the hackers also know about his current main work project and that he has access to some highly advanced technical CPU-specifications that they would love to sell to other companies on darknet black markets.

John Doe is in trouble now, for sure. His marriage & work are at stake and there is not much he can do. Even if he just says “fuck it, I wanted to divorce anyway, these chinks won’t see a dime”, he is still compromised to the max and has all the reasons to be paranoid. Even if he removes all devices instantly, there are still some issues: “How long did this go? What else might they have from me? What if they contact my employer anyway? Hell, I don’t even remember a fraction of the things I talked about at home or who I even called during that time…” – all these thoughts might go through his head before he picks up his phone or the rope.

This was just a basic example for how these combinations of smart technologies might be misused in regards to the overall lack of digital security. This doesn’t even include the abilities and intentions of possible totalitarian regimes, oppressive organizations of all kinds or even fanatic religious groups, if they get their hold on even parts of this data to use it against their enemies.

Usage of Smart Home Devices & Other Connected Hardware – What You Should Keep in Mind…

One has to find a balance in the use of certain technologies, even or especially as a tech-savvy user. Depending on the specific location, local regulations & laws in general and the social as well as professional networks you are moving in between, you have to estimate if an impact on your data security is worth it. Sure, if you own and use a smartphone extensively you are already bugged to some degree and you already face similar threats to your privacy and personal data. However, it might make a difference if you start to install potentially insecure wireless microphones and cameras all over your house that are always online & always listening, just to be able to dim the lights by wiping your hands through the air or to search by voice command for the super-cheap offer for that fancy cat litter box you saw somewhere a day before.

Even if the big global companies make a lot right regarding the security of their new devices, could you say the same with absolute certainty about every single connected device in your household? Maybe your next “smart fridge” or the “smart coffeemaker” that you can control via app and that you grabbed in a flash sale have some old vulnerabilities? A single device may open up your whole network and therefore even the data of your smart speakers and cameras to all kinds of people and/or organizations. Sounds paranoid? Maybe. Would you risk that kind of shit happening to you because you “got nothing to hide”? That’s up to you but if your answer is yes, you might as well share your fetishes and other intimate details as well as business secrets right here, right now. Why wait till the leak happens or till someone can use it against you?

Seriously, it would be a good start if you are not the kind of consumer who always feels the need to buy the latest stuff straight away. In the current economic environment, where technology companies are forced to push their latest equipment at an ultra-fast pace, without proper security testing, due to short product cycles and demands of the investors, being an early adopter of devices like these might be a risk you do not want to take. If you don’t want to renounce because you really, really want those new toys because they would make your life so much easier (do they really?), at least try to wait for the 3rd or 4th generation of them, in which many critical bugs got already eliminated at least.

With regard to all the advancing technologies, especially in the private consumer sector, it is always beneficial to be aware of the potential for abuse of these developments and the intrinsic threats they present to oneself and one’s own data security. Be informed and keep yourself up to date as much as possible is a good approach – at least in terms of the digital devices you already use. You do not have to be a nerd or too tech-savvy to do that. The installation of new security patches on your devices is not rocket science too, no matter how much or little experience you have.

One thing, however, should always be clear: Nothing and no one can guarantee the overall security of your private data – neither in terms of the technical side of devices and networks involved nor in terms of future social changes in terms of government, governance, laws and social climate change in general.

JHS

 

You want to voice your opinion & thoughts on this topic?
You got ideas on how to improve this article?
Feel free to comment & discuss below.

  1. Cf. Brian Heater: Comparing Alexa, Google Assistant, Cortana and Siri smart speakers. On TechCrunch, 10/2017
  2. The current Spectre & Meltdown vulnerabilities are good examples for how the tech industry fails to live up to security expectations, especially on the hardware level. See Jack Morse’s nice article regarding these exploits on Mashable from 5th January 2018.

Check Also

Altered Carbon Netflix Series

Altered Carbon (2018): Unfortunate Immortality

A closer look upon the first season of Altered Carbon, the new dark SciFi series on Netflix based on the Takeshi Kovacs novels of Richard Morgan. An in-depth article about the future technologies & visual elements of this dystopian series.

Leave a Reply