Working from home? Don't discuss sensitive information near this device
Last September, we told you about claims made by tech investor John Borthwick who said that Alexa spies on users. Alexa, for those unaware, is Amazon's virtual digital assistant and can be found on the company's Echo smart speakers, Echo smart displays and other devices. Last April, Amazon admitted that it has a team of employees that listen to users' conversations with Alexa. Amazon said that it does this to improve Alexa which the company says is weak when it comes to understanding slang, foreign languages and regional expressions.
Apple allows snippets of conversations to be sent by Siri to third party contractors who grade the virtual assistant's performance and note whether Siri was accidentally activated. And Google also has third-party consultants and employees going through recordings of requests made to the Google Assistant in an attempt to improve the performance of the virtual helper. Most tech firms now allow users to opt-out of having their requests recorded and collected.
Locked-down workers handling confidential material need to be mindful of their smart speaker's assistant
However, with law firms telling their lawyers to work from home during the coronavirus pandemic, these home-bound barristers are complaining that Alexa and Google Assistant could be listening in to confidential calls they are having with their clients. These firms are concerned that the digital assistants, part of smart speakers and smart displays found inside their employees' homes, could be passing along information that is supposed to remain secret. And if you're wondering why Siri isn't being called out by law firms, all we can say is that Apple's HomePod has not been a real player in this market.
An Amazon Echo smart speaker could listen in to discussions that include confidential information
Bloomberg reports that U.K. law firm Mishcon de Reya LLP, the law firm that handled Princess Diana's divorce, told its attorneys stuck at home to turn off Alexa or Google Assistant when they are discussing sensitive matters pertaining to any client. A partner at the firm suggests that lawyers working from home should keep all of their devices away from their workspace. Mishcon de Reya partner Joe Hancock, who runs the firm's cybersecurity unit, also worries that other devices, such as Amazon's doorbell security camera Ring, baby monitors and CCTVs, are also a problem. Hancock says, "Perhaps we’re being slightly paranoid but we need to have a lot of trust in these organizations and these devices. We’d rather not take those risks."
Hancock also notes that his firm is less worried about name-brand devices like those made by Amazon and is more concerned with cheap knock-off units. One issue is that the assistants on smart speakers have a propensity to activate accidentally. Testing done by Northeastern University and Imperial College London found that smart speaker assistants are inadvertently activated between 1.5 and 19 times a day. All it takes is one accidental activation for confidential information to be passed along. Of course, the virtual assistants are not supposed to be activated until the hotword (such as 'Hey Google' or 'Alexa') is said. But sometimes, in the middle of a conversation, something similar to the wakeword is uttered or the assistant thinks that a particular noise is the wake word. For example, the sound of a zipper sometimes will activate Siri.
The problem of reigning in confidential information from a home office is also one that Wall Street is grappling with. But some traders, instead of working from home, are trading from back-up locations that were prepared for situations just like this. But with more and more people forced to self-quarantine and work from home, concern about Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant listening in on confidential conversations is going to grow. Consider that last year, the number of active smart speakers installed in the U.S. was 76 million and that number continues to rise. While smart speakers remain one of the fastest-growing devices in the tech world, if you are now working from home, you must be aware of their location when you are doing your job.