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Brands Selling Alexa Connected Home & Google Voice Speakers Could Soon Face Problems

Brands marketing smart speakers and voice activated connected home gear along with retailers who sell them could be forced to warn consumers that they are buying a “horrifying time bomb that is waiting to go off” an expert has warned.

The warnings come in the wake of comments from the chairman of the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission, Rod Sims, who is set to announce landmark lawsuits against Big Tech companies for large-scale privacy breaches, and who said last week he would never have a Google Home in his own house.

The move could be a major blow to Sony, Sonos, Google, Amazon, JBL, Ultimate Ears and several major brands selling voice activated speakers that Google has issued a free software licence to aimed at primarily allowing them to collect data from users and then selling that data to advertisers.

The big winners could be Samsung with their proprietary Bixby software and Apple with their Siri as these two-sound capture system are not designed to sell marketing services, though that could come in the future.

What’s not known is whether a warning could also come into effect for smartphones and smart watches that have Google Voice built into the devices.

David Vaile, a data protection and surveillance expert at the UNSW faculty of law, said in an interview with the AFR that smart speakers suffered from two fatal flaws.

The first flaw is that they run lightweight “Internet of Things”-style software that will be impossible to keep secure from hackers in the long term, making them “a time bomb waiting to go off”.

The second, bigger flaw was that the Google and Amazon powered speakers they’re operated by companies that refuse to tell customers exactly what is being done with the data collected by the speakers’ microphones, and which are highly motivated to misuse that data.

“Anybody who would use one of these things is a fool” said Vaile.

“There is no way in the world I would have Google Home or the equivalent in my home. Why do I want a device listening to everything I say?

“If people want to have these devices in their homes . . . they need to know in really clear terms which they don’t now . . . how much information is going back to home base, what exactly is being done with it and who it is going to,” Mr Sims said.

“These devices aren’t there to help you,” he said, but rather they’ve been invented to further a business model which is “dependant on an intrusive and omnivorous attitude to aggregating and monetising data”.

“Google insists that everybody else has to put up with Google knowing everything about them, but it’s utterly secretive and utterly controlling about its own, internal data,” Mr Vaile told The Australian Financial Review.

Google’s “vague, plain-English but completely unhelpful privacy policies” meant that anything collected by a Google Home device could be used for purposes other than the purpose it was initially collected for.

“It’s no surprise that, if you’ve got Google running a voice-operated speaker in your home, privacy, data security and confidentiality are not their first consideration.

“In fact, they’re actively an impediment. Google is aggressively anti the privacy policies embedded in the OECD guidelines. Instead of just using information for the purpose for which it was collected, they want to chuck it into a big data ocean and let their bots and machine learning tools run wild.

“Anybody who would use one of these things is a fool,” he said.

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