“Woah. Alexa, Are You Listening To Me?”

Uncovering the alarming potential of smart home devices  

Julia Rodriguez | Features Editor

     From my mom’s iPhone, she can set our home’s thermostat to 74 degrees, open our garage door before we leave for publix, and turn off the kitchen lights after we all have gone to bed. Cool, right?

    Devices such as Amazon Echo and Google Home are components in a growing trend of “smart homes,” which allow homeowners to adjust settings in their home remotely, via their cell phone or voice activation.

    “Alexa, is it going to rain today?” Is the question posed to the 5-inch tall tower in the commercial, but Alexa can do so much more, including schedule appointments for users in iCal or outlook or purchase a new best selling novel on Amazon.

     These devices require a word or phrase to “wake it up,” and for this reason, they are constantly recording to listen for that word and quickly respond. Last May, Time magazine printed an article about a man who was murdered in his friends home. This friend happened to have smart devices in his home.

     The man, Victor Collins, was found dead in his friend James Bates’ hot tub in Bentonville, Arkansas one eerie November morning back in 2015. In the resulting investigation of this incident, police were able piece together details about the homeowner’s involvement due to multiple smart devices inside the home.  The investigators discovered that James Bates’ patio had been cleaned with 140 gal. of water due to the man’s smart utility meter. Bates also had an iPhone 6s which requires a fingerprint or passcode to gain access. Records pulled from the phone had given insight that he had called someone long after when he told the cops he had been in bed. Believe it or not, the prosecution took the man’s Amazon Echo as evidence to be used in the trial. Alexa was subpoenaed. This case marked the first time an artificial intelligence powered device was used to provide evidence in court.

     This brings to mind the question of privacy. If these smart home devices become commonplace and everybody has one in their home, will anything be private?

     Additionally, there is cause for concern over the susceptibility of these devices to hacking. Hackers have the potential to gain lots of information from the smart device. The consumer group Which? carried out an investigation to see, out of 15 smart home devices, the ones that can be hacked. Eight devices out of the fifteen had proven to have some kind of security flaw. Though the Amazon Echo was harder to hack if you place it close enough to a window someone can easily activate it by yelling. Since some smart devices are linked to a cell phone it would be easy to use the device to get around certain safety measures that phone companies install to the phone to prevent hacking,such as fingerprint recognition. If a phone has Apple Pay, for instance, the hacker can gain access to the accounts linked with the device, and could also be privy to notes made on the phone, potentially containing sensitive information like passwords and maybe even social security numbers. Whatever is on the phone, the hacker will be able to access, making identity theft easier. Along with that, the government can hire a hacker to keep tabs on people and await suspicious activity. Say the government suspects a person of smuggling drugs; it can simply hack the smart phone.

     There are some easy ways to keep your devices less susceptible to hacking. Setting a strong password with mixed letters numbers and special characters makes it harder for hackers to guess. Make sure to keep updating the software on the device. This will ensure that the latest security measures are installed and working properly. Keeping the device linked with a secure password protected wifi network can also work wonders in keeping your device secure.

     This begs the question of whether anything is truly private.

     The Fourth Amendment grants citizens of the United States privacy in their homes unless a warrant is granted to search the area, if the police have probable cause. The amendment does not specify if it is applicable to electronic searches or not, as technology has advanced greatly since the Constitution was written. In many cases, the Fourth Amendment does apply, and a warrant is needed to search electronic devices, but there is no decisive law about electronic devices, specifically smart homes. This could prove beneficial  as smart devices inside the home could be used to provide a solid alibi for someone wrongly accused. Similarly, access to these devices could work to incriminate their owners with definitive evidence.

     So while it’s exceedingly convenient and epically trendy, ultimately smart devices are uncharted territory and their impact is yet to be determined. Only time can tell if this innovative technology is lessening life’s burdens or exposing and exploiting formerly private lives. People are becoming more and more knowledgeable of these devices as the days go by. These devices may eventually render cell phones inert if they continue to rise in popularity. They will most definitely remain listening day by day.