Is your smart device listening in?

Written by
Rebecca Goodman
Insurance expert
14 March 2022
4 min read
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We live in a world where a conference call can be held on Microsoft Teams, a family get-together on Zoom, and a live football match streamed on your phone while you keep an eye on passersby via your Ring doorbell. 

There have been huge improvements in technology in the last two years, largely brought about by the pandemic, and it’s now commonplace to work from home and conduct all business via our smart devices instead of commuting into an office every day. 

Yet while the benefits of technology are obvious, security risks have also been exposed. 

If you’re using smart devices regularly, just how safe are they? 

What’s the risk of being hacked? 

Can Alexa really listen into your work calls? 

And is your Smart TV monitoring private conversations? 

We delved into the murky world of the security flaws of some devices to find out what’s the best way to ward off potential hackers and keep your personal information private. 

What are the risks? 

How many times do you ask your device to set a timer when cooking pasta, turn on the radio, or remind you what date or time it is? 

Smart devices - from doorbells, phones and laptops to kettles, microwaves, and thermostats - are being constantly nudged to record certain things by their owners. 

But while they can be really useful, it’s important to know how these devices can be accessed by hackers, and how to make it as hard as possible for this to happen. 

We’ve all heard the stories of TVs or smart devices accidentally mishearing passing conversations and ordering unwanted items, and in most situations money has been refunded. 

Generally a smart speaker from the three big manufacturers, Amazon, Google, or Apple, is safe to use, but the ‘always on’ microphone function does come with risks and ethical concerns, according to cybersecurity firm Kaspersky. 

This can range from an accidental order on Amazon to, in the worst case, a hacker accessing your smart device and stealing your personal or financial information. 

While it may seem like a relatively minor issue for a hacker to have control of your kettle, the bigger issue is if they can access that one, they can usually then get into other devices – including those which store your confidental data. 

When you first buy a new smart device, teach it to recognise your voice, or fingerprint, so it can’t be accessed by anyone else 

How to stop a smart device listening to you 

If you’re having a confidential call with a colleague, or you’re just not keen on your smart device picking up on anything you say, it is possible to limit what it can hear. 

Obviously you could just turn it off, mute the speaker, or go into another room, but most devices have the option of changing what is listened to in the security settings. 

With an Amazon Echo, for example, you can deselect “Help improve Amazon services and develop new features” to lower the amount of data Amazon keeps about you. 

You should also regularly delete your command history, advises Kaspersky, because “this information is used to understand your voice better, and not regularly deleting this could risk your security”. 

When you first buy a new smart device, teach it to recognise your voice, or fingerprint, so it can’t be accessed by anyone else. 

How to keep your smart devices safe 

You may have bought the most up-to-date smart device around, with all the security features needed but that’s often not enough to ward off potential hackers. 

New viruses and scams are created all the time, so to make sure you’re fully protected by regularly updating any software on your smart device. 

The advice from consumer group Which? when buying a new smart device is to pick a well-known brand. 

While it says known brands aren’t immune to poor security practices, it finds the most security issues occur on cheaper devices from online marketplaces. 

If you buy something from a well-known brand, with a customer services helpline and a process for victims of hacking, you’re also likely to have slightly more protection. 

While if it’s second-hand or from a small company you’ve never heard of, there may be a greater risk of something going wrong. 

Which? found that of 1,800 smart products for sale via online marketplaces, including smart doorbells, wireless cameras, alarms and tablets on AliExpress, eBay and Amazon Marketplace, up to 80% of these devices used apps with inadequate security protection that could leave users exposed to hackers or infringement of their data privacy. 

It also says beefing up the security on your device is a must, including picking a strong, hard-to-guess password, using two-factor authentication if possible, and downloading and updating security patches when they are available. 

As a nation, we could afford to be a bit more vigilant on this. Nine in ten consumers in the UK, for example, own a wi-fi router yet just 24 per cent say they have changed their network password or changed their router password, according to this government report

If things go wrong, you should also consider making a claim. 

In The Consumer Rights Act it says that goods must be “of satisfactory quality, fit for purpose and as described”. 

If this is not the case, you can complain, first to the company in question and if that fails to the Ombudsman, Trading Standards or the small claims court, depending on the situation. 

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Don’t forget that while you may think that this article is brilliant, it is intended for information purposes only and should not be mistaken for financial advice or recommendations.