Smart Homes 101: Is a Smart Speaker Right for You?

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Several months ago, Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow) and her husband, Saturday Night Live’s Colin Jost, imagined what it would be like if Alexa could actually read their minds. The Amazon commercial, which debuted during Super Bowl LVI, featured a series of hilariously awkward reasons as to why it’s a good thing that your smart speaker — and virtual assistants and A.I. devices at large — has yet to become a mind reader. 

As we invest in robot vacuums, security cameras and all the other tech needed to create a functional, convenient smart home, it’s easy to wonder: just how smart are smart speakers? While the light-hearted commercial poked fun at the question, many of us would-be smart device owners are concerned about the security risks of smart speakers. Even Steven Soderbergh’s recent film, Kimi, was a Rear Window-style look at the relationship between smart devices and privacy. 

With this in mind, we’re taking a closer look at smart speakers. What are the pros associated with these smart devices — and what are the potential risks? Well, whether you need help determining if a smart speaker is right for you or if you simply want to learn more about how they work, we’ve got you covered here.

What Can Smart Speakers Do and How Do They Work?

While the technology behind smart speakers is still relatively new, these devices have come a long way in a short time when it comes to translating your voice commands into action and responding accordingly. But how does voice recognition software work? 

While smart speakers are always technically “listening” as long as they are turned on, the real magic doesn’t happen unless the virtual assistant — Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri and so on — recognizes a “wake word”. Initially, Alexa is programmed to respond to her name, though you can change your Alexa’s wake word upon setup. (That could prove especially useful if someone in your household is named “Alexa” or “Alex”.) 

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One awakened, the system records whatever is said and then sends the speech file to its voice recognition system, such as Amazon’s cloud-based Alexa Voice Services. The service then deciphers the speech command and uses it to search for the best possible response. Most smart speakers even use incredibly complex algorithms to become more familiar with their owner’s unique speech patterns or accents. 

In addition to Amazon’s Alexa-enabled Echo and Echo Dot smart speakers, some of 2022’s most popular options include Apple’s HomePod Mini, Google’s line of Nest products and the Sonos One, an audio products manufacturer whose competitors include big-name brands like Bose.

The Benefits of Smart Speakers

According to Statistica, 66.3% of American households use smart speakers as of 2022. Considering the many conveniences the voice-activated virtual assistant-enabled devices offer, it’s not hard to see why smart speakers’ popularity has soared. 

From Alexa and Siri to Google Assistant, these A.I. virtual assistants can do just about anything. Need to make a call? Schedule an appointment? Turn off your living room lights? Adjust the temperature of your house from bed? Consider it done. After all, a smart speaker makes it incredibly convenient to tap into these virtual assistants’ many abilities. 

And while any and everyone can gain a lot from this voice-activated tech, smart speakers are especially useful in creating greater accessibility and independence for older adults, disabled folks and/or anyone who has concerns around their mobility. 

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Additionally, some smart speakers offer some pretty incredible emergency- and security-related features. For example, Amazon offers a plan that uses Alexa to listen for irregular sounds and alert you should there be a break-in or other potential hazard. To further deter would-be burglars, Alexa can even be programmed to play recordings of a barking dog or an emergency vehicle’s siren. 

But that’s not where a smart speaker’s helpfulness ends. These devices can also provide you with alerts for weather emergencies; help you call for help from anywhere in your home, all hands-free; and access basic medical advice in situations where you may feel a bit panicked. 

Then there are the more day-to-day features. As a smart speaker “gets to know you,” it can learn your routine. If you need reminders about important tasks or appointments, or if you want a little extra help saving money, a smart speaker (and its virtual assistant) can help you stay organized and automate your home energy use. Plus, anyone who has ever lost their TV remote can tell you that it doesn’t hurt to have a voice command option when it comes to accessing various apps and streaming movies, TV and music.

What Are the Smart Speaker Security Concerns?

For all their pros, smart speakers still come with several cons. Anytime you have a device in your home that’s — by design — always listening, you’re going to wonder what info it picks up, how much it catches and what it does with that information. As we mentioned above, smart speakers are only supposed to record your voice when activated by their “wake word,” but there have been instances where Google smart speakers, for example, just recorded everything. Obviously, this accident raises huge privacy concerns.

In 2019, a company called Ring, which makes smart doorbell cameras, partnered with over 400 police departments to grant them access to users’ camera footage. While homeowners are still supposed to be able to decline law enforcement requests for footage their cameras may have captured at a specific time, the whole thing is still a little too “Big Brother” for some smart device users. 

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And then there’s a whole other set of cybersecurity concerns to consider, too. The smarter your home becomes, and the more devices you connect to your system, the more vulnerable you could become to hackers. When your smart network controls everything, from your security system to your thermostat, that’s pretty concerning. 

Tips for Mitigating Smart Speaker Security Concerns

Luckily, it’s possible to limit your smart speaker-related security and privacy risks. First, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with all your smart speaker has to offer. For example, if privacy is a concern, you may want to deactivate your more personalized features and opt out of data sharing. If hackers, in particular, make you nervous, think about enabling two-factor authentication (2FA).

Apart from tapping into the speaker’s settings and built-in security features, consider your smart network as a whole. For starters, consider just how many devices you’re connecting to the same network. While it may be less convenient, some users even go as far as operating their personal and smart devices on two different networks. And, of course, there’s no better way to escape Alexa’s prying digital ears than by muting the smart device’s microphone — or unplugging it entirely.