Conveniences, consequences of smart home devices

WASHINGTON — In the age of ever-progressing technology, there’s a delicate balance between convenience, privacy and security.

That is especially true in the case of smart home devices such as Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s home devices and Apple’s Siri.

So should consumers be wary of these modern timesavers? Tom Merritt, host of the Daily Tech News Show, told WTOP that it is a mixed bag at the moment and cases can be made both for and against the new home assistants.

The concerns

Merritt said that security on these home devices is lacking, at best.

“Anybody can say the wake word on an Amazon Echo and have it do anything that you have programmed it to do,” Merritt said. “Google and Apple have a few more safeguards, but they’re not terribly secure and they’re not good at knowing to obey only one particular voice.”

There’s also the fact that the companies get access to the conversations that you have with these devices, so you need to put your trust in whatever company you choose.

“You have to know that whatever you say to that smart speaker is going to be stored by that company, and you have to decide if you trust that company to handle your data well.” Merritt said.

However, you can see all of the conversations that the companies store from you and can choose to delete anything from their archives that you would like.

Something else to consider: Once you’ve begun building your smart home with one company’s smart devices, it’s going to be increasingly difficult to switch to another company’s service because of the costs involved.

“Once you pick an ecosystem you’re kind of stuck in that one,” Merritt said. “It’s hard to switch if you decide the Google one looks better and you’ve already set up with Amazon. You’ll have to spend a lot of money to do it.”

The upsides

The idea that these devices are always listening to every word you say is largely a myth.

“There’s been a lot of good audits of the hardware to prove that — no, it really is just listening to the wake word and caches maybe a few seconds around that.” Merritt said.

The devices are very convenient and integrate naturally into your home once installed. Merritt said he didn’t recognize just how much he had come to lean on his smart devices until recently.

“I realized how often I interacted with these things, and I hadn’t even realized it,” Merritt said. “I asked it to turn on the TV; I asked it to turn on the lights; I asked it to play some jazz while I was making my lunch. It really will pervade your life very quickly if you let it,” he said.

And as these technologies develop, they’ll allow even those who are less tech-savvy to access them.

“They can make life a whole lot easier because they take away the need to pull something out to understand an app,” Merritt said. “The better they get, the more natural they will be to use and the easier for anyone from children on up to people in their 90s will be able to take advantage of these technologies.”

Zeke Hartner

Zeke Hartner is a digital writer/editor who has been with WTOP since 2017. He is a graduate of North Carolina State University’s Political Science program and an avid news junkie.

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