A surveillance bug in your home?
MARCH 28, 2017
A professor at the University of Texas thinks that “mission creep” could one day lead to the government listening in on private conversations in people’s homes via the new Google Home device.
Google Home is a newly launched wi-fi connected “smart speaker” that responds to voice commands with relevant information via a virtual speaking assistant. The device is a rival to Amazon Echo, which performs many of the same functions.
According to Dr. Philip Doty, associate dean of the School of Information at the University of Texas, privacy advocates are right to be concerned, especially in light of revelations that the CIA allegedly hacked Samsung Smart TVs to record private conversations.
“We now have a third party presence which not only can listen to us but can record us and share that information with retail giants, with third party information brokers and potentially with government,” Professor Doty told KXAN.
Doty added that there was “some rationale” for describing the devices as “surveillance robots”.
Patrick Moorhead of Austin-based Moor Insights and Strategy said he “believes” Google when the company says it promises to only listen for key words and “delete all of the other conversations they happen to overhear.”
However, Professor Doty said he didn’t believe that promise and “mission creep” could lead Google and Amazon to change their privacy policies in the future.
“Even if they were the best of actors, it would be difficult to resist the temptation to gather more and more information about us,” he said.
Another video posted to YouTube shows a user asking Google Home about the CIA, to which the device responds with a long rambling message which states, “No government entity, US or otherwise, has direct access to our user’s information. Respect for the privacy and security of data you store with Google underpins our approach to producing data in response to legal requests. You can learn more in Google’s transparency report.”
According to the “Data security & privacy” policy that applies to Google Home, “Google stores data about our conversations on its servers, which reside in its data centers.”
Under the sub-heading Is Google Home recording all of my conversations?, the document states, “Google Home listens in short (a few seconds) snippets for the hotword. Those snippets are deleted if the hotword is not detected.”
However, given the revelations about Samsung TVs, to take these promises at face value seems absurdly naive.
Back in 2013, former CIA director General David Petraeus admitted that the “Internet of things” was a transformational boon for “clandestine tradecraft”.
In other words, it would soon be easier than ever before for the government to keep tabs on the population since everything they use will be connected to the web, negating the need for spies to directly plant a bug in someone’s home.