I have written in the past about privacy concerns that people using digital assistants like Amazon's Alexa and Google's Home should consider. A recent incident illustrates the urgency of doing so.

According to Artem Russakovskii, writing for Android Police, a Google Home Mini that he was using was recording even when it was not supposed to.

Here is what happened:

Digital assistants -- such as Amazon's Alexa, Apple's Siri, and Google's Home -- are designed to listen, record, and process requests only when they first hear a specific "wake-up" phrase. In Amazon's case, for example, it is "Alexa"; anything else that is heard is erased from memory immediately after the device determines that what it heard was not the wake-up phrase. On the Google Home Mini, however, one also has the option to press on the top of the device to wake it up, rather than say the wake-up phrase.

For some unknown reason, Russakovskii's Mini had a hardware flaw that caused the device to think that somebody was pressing on the top even when nobody was doing so. As a result, the device was randomly waking up, recording, and transmitting information to Google. Russakovskii was able to determine that something was amiss, because the Mini turns on lights to indicate that it is active, and the lights were illuminated when they should not have been. But, because activating involves listening and not speaking, it was impossible to determine that something was wrong unless one actually looked at the device. Furthermore, only by reviewing his device's search history could Russakovskii determine the magnitude of the problem.

Google says that the problem impacts only "people who received an early release Google Home Mini device at recent Made by Google events," but, to ensure privacy, the firm has "decided to permanently remove all top touch functionality on the Google Home Mini" via an update that has now been sent to all devices that are connected to the internet. If you have a Mini that is not connected, the update should install after you next establish connectivity.

The lesson from this episode is straightforward: If you plan on using digital assistants or other smart devices, make sure that you are aware of the privacy concerns before doing so. And remember: Electronics don't always work as promised by their manufacturers.

Published on: Oct 16, 2017