Guard Your Privacy

September 7, 2017
Jay Stanley
ATTENTION, PLEASE! Say “Okay, Google” to activate Google Home. ASK ALEXA: Amazon Echo’s assistant is named Alexa.
ERIC RISBERG—AP; FRANK DUENZL—PICTURE-ALLIANCE/AP

Jay Stanley works on the speech, privacy, and technology project at the American Civil Liberties Union. Here, he explains why we must protect our privacy when using new technology.

Jay Stanley works on the speech, privacy, and technology project at the American Civil Liberties Union.

COURTESY ACLU

Many new toys and products include microphones and cameras. They can be fun and useful. But who is listening to the microphones? Who is watching the cameras?

Personal assistants like Amazon Echo and Google Home are examples of such devices. So are Hello Barbie dolls, the Xbox Kinect and other game consoles, and even some TVs and cars. Many have microphones that are always listening for a “trigger word.” This tells the device to start listening.

How can you be sure a device is recording only when you want it to? Three groups of people might spy on a microphone. These are the company that makes the product, the government, and hackers, or people who break into computers.

Companies usually have a privacy policy. It states what kind of listening they will do. It also explains what recordings they will store in their database. Sometimes, companies break those promises. This can get them into trouble with the government. Or they word their policy in a tricky way to confuse customers.

The police should not spy on any microphones unless they are going after a criminal. For this, they need permission from a judge. But sometimes, police spy on the wrong people. Because these innovations are so new, there aren’t yet clear laws to prevent them from doing so.

To protect your privacy, always make sure devices that connect to the Internet get software updates. They fix security flaws that can be used to spy on you.