Smart speakers may be listening in while you work from home


RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Working from home during the coronavirus pandemic is creating new challenges. One of them is how to keep sensitive business activities from electronic ears.

The new normal for the time being is working from home and homeschooling. Many homes have smart speakers of some kind.

Internet security specialist Craig Petronella said people need to be careful around those devices when working from home.

“They are always listening,” he said. “You don’t know where that info is being stored.”

In a recent study by Northeastern University, researchers put Siri, Alexa, and other systems to the test by exposing them to 125 hours of Netflix shows. Random words from those shows activated the smart speakers to listen in and begin recording up to 19 times a day and for as long as 43 seconds.

Petronella said the devices are exceptional at listening, even if someone thinks they’re far from the speaker.

“I wouldn’t trust the distance,” he said. “You’d be surprised at how good those speakers are and what those microphones pick up.”

A lawyer or businessperson working from home can be conducting sensitive conversations with clients and colleagues. There’s a risk that smart devices not only listen, but might be sending that recording to its makers and elsewhere.

For a doctor, letting that information become available elsewhere can cause a medical-information breach.

“That’s a big HIPPAA violation and the office of civil rights, which is the sheriff in these cases, will impose stiff fines,” Petronella said.

Amazon admitted that in June 2019, it had employees monitoring what it said were snippets of conversations recorded by Alexa devices. It said the monitoring was to help improve its artificial-intelligence software to help the device better understand accents and other languages.

“I recommend any medical office or any office dealing with sensitive information unplug those devices,” Petronella said. He included that advice and more in his newsletter.

Disengaging a smart speaker shuts off the device’s other functions until it’s turned back on. To disable or delete recordings made by a specific device, check out this how-to guide.

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