Research: Half Of Smart Speaker Device Owners Are Willing To Give Up Privacy In Their Homes

By Amit Chowdhry ● November 24, 2018

As the availability of Internet of Things (IoT) products are increasing, the demand for smart speakers has been growing. And smart speakers like Amazon Echo and the Google Home have especially been a hot ticket item this holiday season due to major price drops. If you have not bought one yet, then it is likely that you do not see the point of owning one or you might have privacy concerns.

Researchers at the University of Michigan School of Information recently looked into privacy perceptions and concerns with smart speakers. The results were published in a study called Alexa, Are You Listening?: Privacy Perceptions, Concerns and Privacy-seeking Behaviors with Smart Speakers.

Florian Schaub, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan and the senior author of the study, said that a number of consumers who have not adopted smart speakers do not believe that will have much use for them, but half of them were worried about privacy. Consumers who have adopted the smart speaker devices were not as concerned about privacy and they were not using the privacy features that the devices have built-in.

“We found that people were resigned to giving up their privacy, and they rationalize this choice by saying it’s just a little more data that Google is getting or Amazon is getting about me,” said Schaub in a statement. “I find that really concerning. It shows a dangerous and creeping erosion of privacy and privacy protections. These technologies are slowly chipping away at people’s privacy expectations.” And Schaub said that the current privacy controls are not meeting people’s needs.

The researchers pointed out that it is not just what the companies that make the devices are doing with the data that is an issue, but the technology makes people vulnerable to hacker attacks. And law enforcement agencies also have an interest in getting information from smart speakers. For example, a judge in New Hampshire ordered Amazon to provide the recordings from an Echo device that may have been a “witness” to a murder.

For the study, thirty-four participants were divided evenly among people who adopted smart speakers and those who decided not to buy one for reasons other than the price. These participants were interviewed in depth for the study.

During the interview, people were asked why people did or did not use a smart speaker. And they were asked if they know about some of the built-in features for protecting privacy.

Some users knew that there was an app that would allow them to delete recorded information. However, the researchers found that a number of smart speaker device owners used this function to take advantage of the recordings like checking to see what babysitters are asking the device to do or see how their children interact with it.

A number of the participants knew that there was a mute button on the device, but thought it was there to mute the speaker rather than the microphone. And some of the device owners that were aware of the feature did not believe it was practical to have to press a button to mute a voice-commanded device.

The participants believed that the device only records when they say “Alexa” or “Hey, Google.” Even though the recording is only supposed to begin after the keyword is used, there have been a number of false activations and an accidental sharing of private conversations.

Aside from these issues, you may also have to think about the data being generated from the questions that people ask the devices. The devices are able to find out if the consumers have children, what type of food they enjoy, and their music preferences.

Josephine Lau, the first author of the study, said that the microphone is always on so it requires a lot of trust in the companies that are building the smart speakers to handle your data responsibly.

And Lau explained that companies that are serious about privacy controls should integrate it in the devices’ voice commands. “When asked how they could stop their speakers from listening, multiple current users attempted to address this by saying ‘Alexa, stop listening’ or ‘Alexa, stop recording,’ showing how users naturally assume that they would be able to engage with these privacy controls with their voice,” added Lau. “However, current speakers do not support this.”

Lau also pointed out that participants have voiced the desire for an incognito mode that are similar to what is found on web browsers. So users could say commands like “don’t listen for the next hour” or “erase what you heard yesterday.”

Schaub is recommending that everyone in the family has a conversation about what it means to bring one of these devices into the home. And he recommended that people use features that are provided for protecting privacy especially since it brings a live microphone into “probably your most intimate space.”