More and more, the devices in your home are listening to you, your friends and family.
It sounds Orwellian. It’s billed as convenient.
As the Internet of Things proliferates, it creates a world in which everyday devices are interconnected via a web of sensors, apps, software and Wi-Fi. That means you can lower your thermostat on the drive home while your refrigerator orders a dozen eggs after sensing the supply is low.
Devices with various types of voice technology are also becoming more common. With a simple hands-free utterance, an Amazon- or Google-run personal assistant can stream your favorite Gap Band playlist or find a solid recipe for macaroons. But it also raises concerns about privacy – not just hacking but also how companies protect your data.
Some of the devices must be powered on manually, but others are always listening for commands or “wake words” that spur the machine into action.
Already, groups like the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Center for Law and Information Policy have sought to address the concerns inherent in some of these devices.
In recent weeks, we’ve also seen stories about a newscaster’s on-air report activating an Amazon Echo and an Arkansas prosecutor issuing a search warrant to see if a suspect’s Echo contains evidence in a murder case.
So, what devices are listening? And why? Here’s a quick rundown of some popular contraptions, along with links to their privacy policies, so you can see what the parent companies can and can’t do with the data they collect.
Home speaker/personal assistant
Chopping onions when the urge to hear some tunes or learn the capital of Luxembourg strikes? No worries. A new line of personal assistants is there to help with everyday queries. The devices are increasingly interconnecting with other devices, too, so simple tasks such as turning on the living room lights or locking the front door are even easier.
Phones, tablets, laptops
Preceding the advent of home speakers that double as personal assistants was software that turned your online devices into handy little helpers. Rather than pecking out texts and Internet searches on a tiny keyboard, this type of software allows you to request a variety of information and functions from your phone, from thoughtful to frivolous.
sFar from the “idiot boxes” that millennials and their predecessors grew up with, today’s Internet-enabled smart TVs provide a host of functions that allow users to stream Netflix or update Facebook on the same screen they use to watch CNN’s “The Situation Room.” Many of these televisions are equipped to field voice commands.
Talking toys are nothing new, but today’s iterations are far more advanced than the pull-string Chatty Cathy or even the animatronic Teddy Ruxpin. Makers of modern interactive dolls and robots say the toys can now empathize and carry on a conversation with children.
Why should interconnectivity be limited to the home? Ever since the Knight Industries Two Thousand, folks have dreamed of an interactive car. While today’s version won’t have a turbo boost button, it will integrate communications, entertainment and navigation, all with a simple voice command.
Advances in video games seem to move faster than Sonic the Hedgehog, so it’s no surprise console manufacturers are increasingly incorporating voice commands into their systems. Right now, the commands are relatively basic. But considering some games allow you to use your body as a joystick, there’s no telling where this technology will be in a few years.
Some of these timepieces are simply extensions of your phone, allowing you to chat or text with friends by speaking into the device on your wrist. Others are more autonomous and allow you to record audio, keep up with your fitness goals or connect with an electronic personal assistant.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. For any home security system to be effective, it needs to pick up sound. Some of these devices actually detect changes in sound, while others allow for two-way communications. At least one comes equipped with facial recognition and the ability to detect various alarms.
Like home security systems, you need audio capability on a baby monitor. How else would you hear your precious little tyke calling out for Elmo? But many baby monitors are taking it to the next level, monitoring a child’s breathing and other vital signs to provide parents with critical knowledge of their youngster’s well-being.