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May 1, 2020

Smart Devices at Home and Maintaining Confidentiality

Are Your Smart Devices Listening to Your Confidential Discussions? How to Secure Your Devices and Protect Your Data

By Paige Backman and Andy Nguyen

Your Fitbit knows that you skipped your morning jog. Siri knows that you forgot to set your morning alarm. Soon, your fridge will know that you’re almost out of eggs. As more and more everyday objects become connected to the internet, personal assistants and smart speakers such as Apple’s HomePod, Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home are becoming commonplace in homes everywhere. While the increased connectivity offers immense conveniences – especially in the self-isolated world of COVID-19 – your internet usage and behaviours are increasingly becoming the target of tracking, measurement and analysis. We’re taking more conference calls and having work discussions while we’re at home. Are we concerned about confidentiality? The answer is yes.

Amazon utilized a team of thousands of workers who listened in on conversations with Alexa. Amazon’s response was that it did this with a goal of understanding human speech. Reports have noted that the voice recordings are tied to device serial numbers and the owner’s first name. This has prompted a response by the European Union who intend to regulate and prepare guidelines on the use of digital assistants such as Siri and Alexa. As companies and employees increasingly turn to working at home in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is imperative that private and confidential information remains protected.

Lawyers discussing client matters, doctors discussing patient information, business persons discussing confidential information. All highly-sensitive information and all may be recorded by certain smart devices in your home and outside the workplace. Whether or not someone is actively listening in on the conversation, the conversations are stored and can be accessed by third parties.

While privacy watchdogs and lawmakers are still attempting to legislate this evolving area of technology, we don’t want you to stay awake worrying about this. There are simple steps you can take at home to protect your privacy, while still enjoying the benefit of these products.

Mute Button and Disabling Personal Assistants

  • The easiest way to ensure that your device is not listening or recording any information inadvertently is to mute the smart speaker and to disable personal assistants when not in use.

Audible Alerts

  • Smart assistants and speakers are designed to record, listen and process when certain commands are heard.
  • In order to ensure that the device is not listening or recording when you are not intending to use it, turn on audible alert settings so that the device emits a familiar sound every time the device is activated. This ensures that the device is only listening and recording when you want to activate it.

Delete History

  • When Alexa or Google captures your voice, they store recordings indefinitely.
  • You can periodically delete your activity by navigating the privacy settings of your device online.

Secure the Device

  • Create a separate guest WiFi network for these devices to keep them apart from your computers and other secure devices. The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada recommends that the network be password protected and choosing a WAP2 network when prompted.1
  • Ensure your home network is secured with virus protection and firewalls.
  • Be sure to update the firmware program if you receive a notification to do so from the computer program that runs the device.

Read Privacy Information

  • We wouldn’t be lawyers if we didn’t recommend reading information about how to protect your privacy.
  • Get in the habit of reading privacy information. This information will often explain to you how the information is collected, how your information is being used, the services being offered, and what information is shared with third parties. At first, this may be challenging to understand, but you’ll soon start understanding more and more.
  • The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada recommends that consumers should check to see that manufacturers follow security or privacy standards, such as the International Standards Organization (ISO), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Online Trust Alliance.2

Having employees work from home can offer benefits and challenges to both organizations and employees. Confidential conversations being recorded should not be an added risk. Ensure your employees and consultants are aware of the risks and inform them of some of the simple ways to reduce that risk.

Aird & Berlis LLP’s privacy and data security experts can provide support and legal guidance to help your organization navigate any of your privacy concerns or questions.


1 The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, “Privacy and the Internet of Things”, 2017-12-12 <https://www.priv.gc.ca/en/privacy-topics/technology/02_05_d_72_iot/>.

2 Ibid.

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