“Ok Google, turn on the light of the living room”, here is one of my first sentences when I get home. Like many people, I gave in to the temptation of the must-have gadget of a smart speaker for Christmas.
After seducing 19,7% of the total US.population, smart speaker have arrived massively on the French market. Google was the first on the French market in 2017 with Google Home. Amazon joined him in 2018 with the Echo speaker range, quickly followed by Apple and HomePod.
All these products have in common that they are connected to the Internet via WiFi and have a virtual assistant capable of answering oral questions. With their synthetic voice, they promise to make life easier by providing access to a multitude of services faster and more naturally than by typing on a smartphone’s virtual keyboard.
But it is important to have some understanding in mind before buying it because it might also be a threat to privacy. Instead of comparing all features offers by those smart speakers here are some question I asked myself before purchasing my Google Home.
Are they real value added technology?
- Access to certain features faster than on a mobile phone
“Alexa, launches episode 2 of Season 3 of Orange is the New Black” or “Hey Siri, plays my favorite playlist” “Okay Google, turn on the TV on M6”. These are some easy commands to execute if you have a subscription to Netflix or a Spotify account.
- Plan your daily life
“Okay Google, what are my appointments today?” The smart speaker will state the elements listed in your Google Calendar. It can also wake you up at a pre-defined time with the sound of birds, then gives you the weather report and the latest news.
- Control connected objects in the house
Turning on the light, managing the thermostat, open your shutters, etc. Be careful, it’s necessary to check beforehand that your devices are compatible with the speaker. You will also need to be very patient with the configuration. Once these pitfalls are done, it’s possible to program your object. For example, opening your shutters at 8 o’clock; turn on the light of your bedroom at 8:10 o’clock and turn on the coffee machine at 8:15 by simply saying “Hey Siri, hello”. Freaky or not?
This new technology will help us know everything whenever we need it. Announced as our digitized future, information is everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
What can’t they do?
The smart speakers are still imperfect because no one is perfect, isn’t it? Sometimes you have to ask them several times to make yourself understood, especially when you are asking for foreign music.
Those connected speakers are not able to hold a conversion like a real human yet. It is better to use the lists proposed by each company (Google, Amazon, Apple) to be sure to be understood.
Are they spies in the middle of your living room?
Installed in a corner of your living room, the connected speakers are a new gateway for Amazon, Google and Apple. It allows them to propose their services directly to their consumers’ home and to learn more about their habits and their behavior.
Before purchasing this type of product, it’s necessary to keep in mind that it is an Internet-connected device equipped with several microphones. They are normally in standby and are activated only when the keywords of the smart speaker are spoken, such as “Alexa”. Despite this precaution, there is a risk of hacking, as with any connected object on wifi.
Several episodes of involuntary activation of their microphones have already been shown in the news. For example, Washington station KIRO 7 was contacted by an American couple that had their conversation recorded and transmitted to one of their employees in Seattle by an Amazon speaker.
This isn’t the first time Alexa has gone wrong. Users of Amazon’s digital assistant, have reported their Echos were laughing at them for no apparent reason.
Those type of incident can be very dangerous with regard to the data collected by these devices. Those speakers collect lots of information about the business habits and behaviors of their users. The data tell a lot about their private lives.
How to limit their intrusiveness?
If you are sensitive to these connected objects, it is possible to limit their intrusiveness by respecting certain elementary principles. Here are some advice given by The French personal data protection authority:
- Turn off the microphone when you are not using your speaker or when you receive friends.
- Regularly delete the history of your conversations
- Don’t give the responsibility for sensitive functions such as alarms or locks.
These easy tips will protect you in case of hacking or malfunctioning. Therefore, you have to be aware that when you ask something to these speakers, they select the information sources of the answers for you. While your computer or smartphone offer you several sources each time. The selection of the answer may influence you.
In the ideal connected home, humans could converse easily and safely with their digital personal assistants, asking them for a whole range of services. Collecting our data allow them to deliver more targeted services and improve the quality of the services we get from our virtual assistants but is it really worth losing our privacy?