Getting paranoid about our smart speaker

The other day I was on the phone with my sister – our land line, not a cell phone – and I said to her, “You’re my person.” This is a well-known phrase from the TV show Grey’s Anatomy; Meredith Grey and Cristina Yang used to say it to each other to cement the closeness of their friendship.

The day after, I saw an ad in my Instagram feed for a company that makes a variety of items featuring the “You’re my person” tagline. Mugs, necklaces and t-shirts.

I might have chalked this up to coincidence, but this isn’t the first time this has happened – that I have said something out loud in our home and then seen that same thing show up in an ad on social media.

A couple of months ago, I said to my youngest that we should have a High School Musical marathon, because we own all three movies on DVD, and hadn’t watched them in a while. The next day, there was a “suggested for you” article in my Facebook News Feed: “20 Things You Didn’t Know about High School Musical.” It seems like too much of a stretch to guess that a story about a 14-year-old movie just happened, coincidentally, to be trending on the very day after I had mentioned it at my house.

Those aren’t the only examples, either. It’s happened enough that I’m definitely starting to look askance at our Google Home. It’s a device in our house that listens to what we are saying all the time, day and night. Google and Amazon both claim that only things you say after the trigger word get recorded, but have also admitted that there have been times when other things have been recorded accidentally.  What if a few phrases are being stored, and marked as part of our profiles? Our Google Home can recognise the individual voices of each of our family members, so it’s not too far-fetched to imagine that it might be taking my voice saying “High School Musical” and filing that away in my Google profile for future use.

It’s kind of creeping me out, personally.

But the weirdest thing of all is that my kids don’t seem to mind all that much. I asked them about this – the idea that your own home might not be completely private – and they kind of shrugged it off. They have grown up in the world of the internet and they completely understand and expect that anything they do online is not protected or private in any way. Any posting, email or chat could be used to gather information about them, and they know it.

Not only are they not bothered by this, but they welcome it. They appreciate the fact that the only YouTube videos they see are for video games and upcoming action movies. They like that their devices seem to know them and cater to them. They are totally down with being directly marketed to.

And if that means that our home conversations are just part of that data mining? Well, it’s not surprising to them or alarming. They assume nothing is private; they value the advertising benefits. And are the things we say around the smart speaker really more personal than what we search for on Google or what we watch on YouTube, which we know are being used for ad targeting?

I don’t think I’ve come across anything else so far that so clearly marks them as another generation from me.

As for the Google Home – well, it’s on probation for now. Maybe those incidents above really were just coincidences, and I’m being paranoid. But it’s worth it, I think, to be thoughtful and pay attention and make up your own mind about how devices like this affect your home life. We only really use it for checking the weather and playing music via our Spotify account, so it’d be easy to part with if these kind of “coincidences” keep occurring. But maybe I just need to get with the times and develop a new idea of what’s private, and what’s not. Or maybe set Google Home to not record what I’m saying, or delete those recordings every now and then.

What do you think – do you have a Google Home, Amazon Echo, or another Internet voice-activated device at home? Do you worry about your privacy? Have you changed the default settings?


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