Are Your Devices Spying On You?

February 17, 2017

Are the devices in your house listening to what you say? How much do they hear?

It may sound paranoid, but it's increasingly becoming the reality as voice recognition software improves dramatically. Everything from our smart devices to children's toys now have the ability to listen to us, collect our information and, in some cases, communicate back.

What does this mean for overall privacy efforts? That's a question that a growing number of people are starting to ask themselves.

A doll that listens to you

My Friend Cayla is a popular children's toy that, at first glance, looks much like any other doll. Like many toys, Cayla can talk, and encourages children to talk to her. Unlike most other playthings, however, Cayla is actually listening and recording what children say.

Houston Public Media reported that the toy is being billed as capable of having intelligent conversations with children. Used properly, it is connected to a smartphone app, which allows it to record what children say and then speak back to them.

The aspect that has made some parents and privacy experts nervous is that these recordings are reportedly being shared with the toy's makers. Specifically, the news source stated that recordings are sent to servers at two locations: first to Genesis, the company that makes the doll itself, and then to Nuance, which makes voice recognition software.

"We're very concerned about the fact that these dolls are essentially spying on your kids' private conversations," Claire Gartland, director of the Consumer Privacy Project at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told the news source. She added that many parents might not be aware of what My Friend Cayla is capable of, and have not consented to it.

Increasing amount of devices are listening

Many parents might read about toys such as My Friend Cayla and be understandably concerned about their children's privacy. But they may not realize just how many of their devices are already recording background conversations.

For instance, most Americans now own smartphones, which bring their own host of issues. Whether you have an Apple or an Android device, yours is likely equipped with voice recognition software that is recording everything you say to it and sending the audio files to a server. In fact, recently The Daily Dot reported that individuals working for Apple and Google may have been hired to listen to sample conversations and determine whether the device responses were accurate.

Some devices are designed to constantly listen to background noise. One example is that of the Amazon Alexa. USA Today reported that this device is always listening for "wake" words, such as "Alexa," which signal for it to begin recording everything it hears.

The problem for consumers isn't necessarily that the companies themselves will misuse their data. While there is the possibility that one day more firms will be interested in collecting recorded voice information for the purposes of advertisement targeting, for now it appears that most of these businesses are more focused on improving their products. But whether they are keeping these servers secure from hackers - who may have more nefarious plans - is a separate question.

We know that it can be alarming to hear about threats to your privacy and potential breaches that could compromise your identity. Sometimes it can seem that you have to change everything about the way you live your life just to be more secure. But we at Identity Guard understand that your unique habits are what make you, you. With our variety of products, we focus on helping people help protect themselves from identity theft.

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