Online safety / August 16, 2019

Hey Alexa, how do I know you’re secure?

Lynne Barrington

Lynne Barrington

Communications Manager, TELUS Technology Strategy

Woman using laptop

Ever since digital voice assistants first hit the market, their futuristic charm has made them one of the most talked about gadgets in town. In between amusing anecdotes and debating cool features, questions about security invariably creep in. If you’re one of four million Canadians who already own one, or want to bring Siri, Alexa or Google Assist into your home, you may be wondering how to keep these devices away from prying ears and eyes.

The biggest concern for many is that digital voice assistants are always listening. When they hear “wake words”, like “OK Google” or “Hey Siri”, they record a few seconds of audio, send it to a remote cloud server, and analyze it so they can figure out how best to respond. Recorded data is used for voice recognition, service improvements and to build user profiles, but mistakes can happen. In December 2018, a man reported that Alexa had forwarded 1,700 personal recordings to a stranger. Unfortunately, he was not the first to have such an experience.

“There is a lot you can do to protect yourself,” explains Carey Frey, TELUS VP and Chief Security Officer. “Standard precautions, like strong passwords and Wi-Fi encryption will help keep voice assistants secure. You should also consider who has physical access to your device, so you can select options best suited to you at time of setup.”

Even if you don’t already have a standalone voice assistant, you may already own one as part of a multi-functional technology product. Sonos, for example, has been quick to incorporate Alexa into their speakers, Sony Bravia TVs come with Google Assistant already embedded, and some motor vehicle manufacturers are developing their own voice assistants for in-car use. If you own a smartphone with Siri or Google Assist, you could be carrying a voice assistant with you during every part of your day.

So, what can you do to keep your device secure?

These simple steps will help protect you while you enjoy the convenience that voice assistants offer:

  • Protect your router: secure your router with a firewall, strong password and Wi-Fi encryption. This will help protect more than just your voice assistant –- your other connected devices will be more secure too.
  • Hit the mute button: switch off the microphone when you have private conversations or confidential discussions to help prevent accidental recordings. For example, if you work from home, you could inadvertently send sensitive business information to the cloud if your digital assistant saves work conversations.
  • Delete your voice recordings: review and erase audio recordings regularly by using the voice assistant’s app or by accessing your account online.
  • Use strong passwords: protect the service account linked to your voice assistant with a strong password. If you use the device to make purchases, set up an authorization PIN. Whenever possible, enable multi-factor authentication.
  • Reflect before you connect: think twice before you connect security-related devices like smart locks to your smart speaker. You don’t want a potential burglar to access your home by yelling: “Hey Alexa, open the front door!”

Roughly 95 per cent of Canadians under 45-years old use the Internet daily, and the number of Canadians using digital voice assistants is rising. Each new device will undoubtedly bring even more ease of convenience, but always keep your security and privacy in mind.

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