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Managing Assistants

Alexa, Google Home, Siri and Cortana are online assistants who can help you get information and even order products without you ever having to tap a screen or look at one. They are a convenience, but they also raise privacy and security issues.

Siri (Apple) and Cortana (Microsoft) are associated with devices, such as phones, tablets and computers. In that type of user environment, you need to activate them with the device in your hand or on your desk, and they’re typically used for getting information, such as the weather, restaurant info or the answer to which person played for both the New York Rangers and Brooklyn Dodgers.

Alexa and Google Home may present other issues. In addition to answering questions, Alexa is tied to Amazon and its online shopping capabilities. We hear that Google Home may tie in with Walmart. With shopping available, you have another layer of concern. Somewhere, they have access to your credit-card information, and it may be possible for any voice to make a purchase.

We’ll be going to CES, the huge annual trade show for consumer electronics, in Las Vegas this month, and we plan to talk to all the manufacturers about their security and privacy protection measures. Until we have more information, here are some things you should know and can do to minimize your risk of a privacy breach or unwanted purchase – especially with Alexa, whom I call Alex when I don’t want to wake her.

Alexa and her fellow assistants remain asleep until they hear their “wake” word, but their microphones are always on. Being on is how they stay ready for your commands, but they should not be active until you wake them. So, here are some ways to help you protect from someone turning them on without your knowledge:

  • Change your “wake” word. Like most things in the IoT world, these assistants come with a default “wake” word. Go into the setup menu on the app, which you can get for your cell phone, and change it.
  • Use the mute button. Yes, it’s a pain to physically walk over to Alexa and push a button (some of you will cringe at memories of getting up to change a television channel), but it is effective – and easier than trying to run through 80-something over-the-air TV channels.
  • Use a PIN to make purchases or disable the function to make purchases by voice commands. Again, it’s an inconvenience, but we’ve discussed the tradeoff between security and convenience many times before.
  • Keep them away from windows so that any activity outside doesn’t activate them.
  • Use your app to see what’s been recorded through your assistant and delete any or all of those recordings. You can also your app to configure and toggle sound notifications, even for multiple units in one home (or office).

You can also follow the IoT cybersecurity steps we’ve published over the past year or so:

  • Change default usernames and passwords immediately. Make your new passwords strong and unique.
  • Install upgrades and updates from your IoT manufacturers. They usually contain security patches and bug fixes.
  • Make sure your Wi-Fi systems and firewalls are secure. That’s your first line of defense. Install upgrades and updates for your gateways and anti-virus and anti-malware apps.
  • Only use secure Wi-Fi networks.

We can audit your Wi-Fi security and help you fine tune the settings for your virtual assistant. Just call us – 973-433-6676 – or email us for an appointment, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook for reports from CES.