Parents' guide on safe use of smart speakers at home

  • Awareness
  • 17/12/2019
  • German Safer Internet Centre

With the holidays coming up, the German Safer Internet Centre (SIC) takes a closer look at smart speakers, which have probably made their way to many children's wishlists, and shares advice on safe use for parents.

Amazon, Google and Apple – these are the big players on the European market for smart speakers. The wireless voice command devices function as a virtual assistant for your daily life. Whether you want to know the time, the current weather conditions or which movies are shown at your local cinema, your little helper has got you covered. No need to use a digital screen or even your hands! The handling of smart devices like Alexa, Siri and others is made to be easy and intuitive. You can even control different functions around the house, such as lighting, heating or shutters, simply by using your voice.

This experience is really fascinating, especially for children, which tend to see them as toys. But none of these devices were originally intended to be used by children or adolescents. Indeed, younger users can easily come across content and services that are inappropriate for their age. Therefore, to avoid children using smart speakers all alone, they should not be set up in their room.

But that is not the only critical point when it comes to smart speakers – others concerns are related to data protection. In that regard, it is useful to take a look at their technical functionality. Smart speakers listen to their surroundings and react to certain trigger-words or trigger-phrases. As soon as they detect their specific trigger, they record what is being said in the room. The recorded audio file is then sent via the internet to the company's server to be processed and saved. The computer generates a fitting response, or reaction, that is sent back to the smart device. For the user at home, the interaction seems over – but the saved (and transcribed) audio file can be reused for further analysis and improvement of the voice detection mechanism.

Even the most trivial conversation can tell a lot about one's private life, possibly including sensitive private information. Additionally, sometimes the devices start recording by accident, because they misheard what was being said around them. Everyone must choose for themselves, whether the comfort of using a smart device is worth the potential disclosure of their private life at home.

Furthermore, large amounts of data being stored in the companies' servers always constitute a risk in case of information leakage. To limit the probability of private conversations and personal data being stored and analysed by global companies, a few measures can be taken:

  • Switch off voice activation – The device only records after the button is pressed. Accidental recordings get reduced, but so does user comfort.
  • Activate a signal that gets played before the recording mode starts to inform the people present in the room.
  • Turn off the device completely when it's not being used.

Watch below the German SIC's video on the pros and cons of smart speakers (in German, with English subtitles).

Further information on the topic "smart living" can be found at klicksafe.de/themen/smartes-leben (in German).

Find out more information about the work of the German Safer Internet Centre (SIC) generally, including its awareness raising, helpline, hotline and youth participation services on the Better Internet for Kids (BIK) portal, or find similar information for Safer Internet Centres throughout Europe.


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