Privacy in the Smart Home is a delicate balancing act. While all apps, devices, and cloud services require a certain amount of user data to function and improve, tech companies are occasionally found gathering more than they require. If your data is stolen by hackers, shared with totalitarian governments, or sold to marketers that don’t mind bothering you, you could be in danger. Some folks simply don’t want others to know about their behaviours.
It’s impossible to go over every brand and platform in the Smart Home industry’s privacy policies, but we can look at what Amazon (Alexa), Apple (Siri/HomeKit), and Google collect via compatible smart speakers and displays to get a broad picture.
Unless you set it to mute, every Alexa-enabled speaker is constantly listening for a wake word so it can respond to voice instructions. When it hears that term, Amazon’s servers usually interpret a recording of the next phrase. Recent Echo devices, such as the fourth-generation Echo, can analyse audio locally if desired, but they still send transcripts to the cloud. This is why, if your connection goes down, Alexa speakers have limited functioning.
Amazon encrypts recordings, but they are tied to your account and retained indefinitely unless you change Alexa’s privacy settings to restrict the term. You can also erase recordings and/or tell Amazon to stop saving them altogether, but there’s a chance Alexa will become less accurate in her responses. Similar choices exist for Smart Home accessory activity, as well as detected sounds if Alexa Guard and/or other sound-based automation routines are turned on.