Experts from UOW and UNSW explain internet users often give away more than they realise

Amazon's smart speaker range - the Echo Spot, Echo, Echo Plus and Fire TV. The Echo's are a cheaper version of its popular Alexa-powered Echo speaker. Picture: Daniel Berman
Amazon's smart speaker range - the Echo Spot, Echo, Echo Plus and Fire TV. The Echo's are a cheaper version of its popular Alexa-powered Echo speaker. Picture: Daniel Berman

Smart speaker technology may be becoming popular in Illawarra homes, but it’s a “buyer beware” situation with experts concerned about privacy issues.

University of Wollongong Associate Professor Shahriar Akter said devices like Alexa, Google Home and Apple HomePod were always listening and collating data for third parties – regardless of whether you have asked it a question. One of the big issues, he said, is they can’t differentiate between the voice of a child or an adult.

“We are moving toward a more connected world than ever before with real time data through smart devices,” he said.

“Households are constantly threatened by a savvy, resource-rich, risk-taking gang of hackers … thus, cyber security for Australian families is going to be a major concern for the digital economy.”

This new age of collecting and storing personal data, including that of children, has presented a smorgasbord for hackers.

Sorin Toma

His comments follow the release of an Xpotentia/University of NSW report, Who is Listening To Your Children. In the wake of recent Facebook scandals, the report found a “growing number of online platforms that collect, store and potentially pass on personal information”.

In the wake of recent Facebook scandals, the report found a “growing number of online platforms that collect, store and potentially pass on personal information” – such as Twitter, Apple, Alphabet/Google, Amazon, YouTube, Uber, AirBNB, among many others.

The report highlighted technology like Alexa recorded and stored almost every piece of information spoken aloud while the machine was on, then shared it with thousands of third parties.

Report author Sorin Toma said one in four Australians were hacked in some way in 2017, with internet users often giving away detailed personal information without realising it. He labelled today’s digital climate as a “smorgasbord for hackers”.

UOW Associate Professor Shahriar Akter says privacy breaches on the Internet are going become a 'huge challenge' in the future. Picture: UOW/Paul Jones

UOW Associate Professor Shahriar Akter says privacy breaches on the Internet are going become a 'huge challenge' in the future. Picture: UOW/Paul Jones

Associate Professor Akter gave the example that there were 91 variables about a person given to Facebook whenever they used it.

“They basically know a lot of personal and private information about you – this information can be used in many different ways,” he said.

“It’s a buyers beware situation. We need to be aware, we need to know the basic privacy and security settings so we can protect our children and protect our private family information.”

We need to know the basic privacy and security settings so we can protect our children and protect our private family information.

Shahriar Akter

Associate Professor Akter also suggested smart speakers should be turned off when not in use, while children should only use them under the supervision of an adult.

He explained that the database economy we are now in meant data could be useful with many benefits but it also created a lot of privacy issues.

“I think it’s going to be a huge challenge in the up coming years … privacy has become an emerging human right,” he said.