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Welcome to the Internet of listening, eavesdropping, spying things

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There’s a new frontier for digital privacy: home devices that understand spoken commands. That’s impressive and convenient, but it comes with definite risks, as Rick Falkvinge pointed out earlier this week. The product sites of the main players in the so-called “smart speaker” sector – Amazon, Apple, and Google – offer plenty of upbeat advertising copy about the convenience, but are naturally silent about the potential problems.

Apple is the most opaque. Its HomePod page oozes cool, but not much in the way of information. Google is the most forthcoming. The Help page for Google Home has the following details about how its system works:

“Google Home listens in short (a few seconds) snippets for the hotword. Those snippets are deleted if the hotword is not detected, and none of that information leaves your device until the hotword is heard. When Google Home detects that you’ve said “Ok Google,” the LEDs on top of the device light up to tell you that recording is happening, Google Home records what you say, and sends that recording (including the few-second hotword recording) to Google in order to fulfill your request. You can delete those recordings through My Activity anytime.”

Google Home uses Google Assistant to pass questions and commands to other Google services online. Amazon’s Echo product takes the cloud-based approach one stage further:

“Alexa – the brain behind Echo – is built in the cloud, so it is always getting smarter. The more you use Echo, the more it adapts to your speech patterns, vocabulary, and personal preferences.”

That’s clearly a big advantage for users, because it means that the “brain” behind Echo will improve as advances in hardware and AI are incorporated in Amazon’s cloud-based platform. But it also means that Echo users don’t really know

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