Smart speakers have come a long way since their debut. These devices are more varied and feature-rich than ever, and it shows in their adoption. At the end of 2019, 60 million American consumers owned at least one smart speaker.
Despite the rising popularity, many people, especially cybersecurity professionals, still have reservations about these devices. IoT devices as a whole are notoriously challenging to secure, after all. So have smart speaker producers fixed these longstanding issues, or do the risks outweigh the benefits?
Here are the leading benefits and security risks of owning a smart speaker in 2021.
The Benefits of Smart Speakers
The appeal of smart speakers is hard to ignore. The smart house movement is in full force, and these devices are the heart of any smart home. You don’t need to have a connected home to benefit from an Amazon Echo or Google Home, though.
Generally speaking, smart speakers make life easier, mostly by bringing small improvements and efficiencies to everyday tasks. The advantages are more enticing for some than for others, but here’s a closer look at the specific ways in which smart speakers can benefit you.
The primary advantage of smart speakers is that they make mundane tasks more convenient. By themselves, they can answer your questions, make calls, or schedule appointments without you opening your phone. When on the same network as other smart devices, they can let you control your lights, temperature, and locks with voice commands.
These time-saving features are a convenience to most users but can be life-changing for some. They can provide independence for users with disabilities by expanding how they can access various systems. Someone with a severe musculoskeletal disorder, for example, can use voice commands to turn on their lights or other devices without any assistance.
Some assisted living communities have deployed smart speakers to remind residents of daily tasks. Using machines instead of staff members for these reminders boosts residents’ confidence and improves staff availability.
Smart speakers can also lead to considerable savings in both time and money. The AI powering these devices has become reasonably complex, often automatically adapting to users’ habits. The more you use it, the more it understands your schedule and automatically performs your regular tasks, saving you time.
Thanks to recent improvements, smart speakers today are compatible with a broader range of devices. As a result, they can automate more functions, like climate control or lighting. When a device familiar with your daily routine can automate energy-consuming processes accordingly, it can lead to substantial cost reductions.
U.S. residential power consumption is only 65% efficient and wastes 3.75 quadrillion BTUs of energy a year. Smart speakers help you use only what you need, reducing this waste and the related costs.
Smart speakers are also helpful physical security tools. Some available options today include features that can recognize the sound of a forced entry. They can then alert both you and the authorities, keeping you safe from burglars or other intruders.
Some emergency management organizations have established mass notification systems that use smart speakers. If there’s an impending emergency, they can send out notifications through these devices, quickly informing anyone at risk. Now that smart speakers can integrate into cars, these alerts can reach more people.
Most major security vendors today make products or systems that feature smart speaker integration. Bringing this connectivity to home security devices like cameras makes them more accessible. You can use your smart speaker to control them via your voice or phone or set them on schedules.
Security Concerns of Smart Speakers
The smart speaker market today has much more to offer than it did a few years ago. You can experience a far broader range of benefits from these devices now, but that doesn’t mean they’re perfect. For all their upsides, today’s smart speakers still have some glaring security flaws.
There are more IoT security solutions available now than there used to be, so some of these flaws may not be critical. Still, they may be enough to turn some users away from using smart speakers in some situations. Here are specific security concerns with today’s smart speakers.
The fact that Amazon and Google own the two leading smart speaker brands is enough to make some users cautious. Privacy concerns are a given with massive, data-centric companies like these. Smart speakers’ ability to gather vast amounts of data without your knowledge exacerbates this issue.
A security error in early 2020 caused Google Home devices to record users at all times without a prompt. While this was an inadvertent change that Google has since fixed, it shines a troubling light on smart speakers. Bugs or errors in a software update could turn your smart speaker into a surveillance device.
Even if your smart speaker only records you when you want it to, you can’t be sure where that data will go. In 2019, Amazon-owned video doorbell company Ring granted police forces access to users’ footage. This sets a dangerous precedent for what Amazon could do with what you tell your Echo.
Susceptibility to Hacking
Smart speakers’ interconnectedness is one of their greatest sources of convenience, but also a considerable vulnerability. The more devices you have connected to your speaker, the more a hacker could access through it. Once breached, these devices serve as an entry point to your entire home network.
This security flaw is even more threatening when you consider how susceptible smart speakers are to hacking. In 2019, researchers demonstrated that hackers could control these devices from 360 feet away with a laser pointer. That’s just one example of the many ways people have successfully hacked into smart speakers.
Like many IoT devices, smart speakers have minimal built-in security measures. While they may be safer than they used to be, new vulnerabilities emerge all the time, and many security features are still optional. Without strong regulatory guidance, securing these devices is largely up to the user.
Safely Using a Smart Speaker
Given these risks, some security-conscious users may not want to own a smart speaker. While these devices can undoubtedly present a security threat, you can make them more secure. If you acknowledge these hazards and employ a few extra security measures, you can safely use a smart speaker.
The most significant step you can take in securing a smart speaker is limiting what you connect to it. If it doesn’t connect to many other devices, it won’t be as severe a threat if hacked. Consider setting up a separate Wi-Fi network for all smart devices to separate them from more sensitive data.
As you use your speaker, be careful not to give it any sensitive information. You should also consider turning off the microphone when you’re not using it to ensure it’s not recording you. If you follow these steps and understand the risks, smart speakers don’t have to be a threat.
Smart Speakers Are Both a Helpful Tool and a Vulnerability
Today’s smart speakers are far more useful than their earlier counterparts. This utility comes at a cost, though, as they can also be a significant vulnerability. It’s crucial to understand both sides before purchasing or using one.
Many smart speaker users may not be aware of the risks. Once you do acknowledge them, though, you can use these devices safely. Careful implementation will help you take advantage of their usefulness without putting your network at risk.
About the author: Devin Partida covers cybersecurity topics for International Security Journal, AT&T's Cybersecurity blog and ReHack.com, where she is the Editor-in-Chief.