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August 24, 2022  |  Electronics

Do smart devices spy on you?

The technology of today is in a constant state of rapid evolution, all aiming to make life as easy as possible. Some of the biggest advancements in easy living have come from “smart” devices, or devices that connect to the internet to access data important to their function that can be controlled from essentially anywhere. Many of these smart devices include microphones so they can be controlled by voice commands as well as cameras for a variety of functions.

However, the inclusion of these microphones and cameras comes with a serious question: Are these devices watching and listening to us when we aren’t actively using them?

What does it mean to spy?

The answer to these questions is a little more complicated than a yes or a no. To start, almost every smart device you have is monitoring you in some way, big or small, with or without microphones and cameras.

Microphone- and camera-less monitoring

Many smart devices have no microphones or cameras, but their connection to the internet is still used to track certain pieces of information, both to perform basic functions and to enable advanced features.

For example, a smart washing machine can track your cycle choices and energy usage to suggest the best cycle options for you or even to rearrange the order of options to make the most selected cycles appear at the top of the list.

Another example, and one more potentially invasive, is smart vacuums. These devices can map out the layout of your entire home and use it to compute the most efficient way to clean it.

Whether or not these kinds of monitoring can be classified as “spying” is up to you and your tolerance for data privacy.

Microphone and camera monitoring

Once you add a microphone and/or a camera, the potential for spying exponentially increases.

If your smart device has one or both of these, they can be accessed by someone that isn’t you. Whether that be a malicious hacker, a government agency or the manufacturer of the device, both live and recorded data can be accessed.

That said, the odds of a hacker or a government agency accessing this data are slim to none for most people.

The manufacturer is different — they record most if not all audio and visual data and use it to improve the functionality of their devices, especially if that device has a smart assistant.

Smart assistants

Smart assistants are the connective tissue that enables most of your smart devices to communicate both with each other and with you. The three most popular smart assistants come from Amazon, Google and Apple.

Amazon Alexa

Amazon Alexa is perhaps the most-used smart assistant in the world, thanks to Amazon’s total domination over online shopping. One way Alexa uses your data is to suggest products to you, especially products it has heard you talk about.

Google Assistant

Google Assistant is right behind Alexa in terms of market share. Thanks to several acquisitions, Google Assistant is the preferred smart assistant for many other smart products, such as lights and thermostats, and therefore has increased functionality with them.

Apple Siri

Apple’s Siri has less connectivity than Alexa and Google Assistant, as Apple prefers to keep the connectivity of their products in the family, so to speak. However, Siri still collects usage data just like the others.

FAQ

Q. Can I prevent a smart device from capturing my data?

A. No. If you’re using a smart device, having your data captured is the price you pay. The only way to prevent a smart device from capturing your data is to disconnect it from the internet, something that almost always renders the device unusable.

Q. How is any of this legal?

A. That’s a complicated web to unravel, but one piece of the puzzle is that many services and devices have terms of service you must agree to that include the ability to use your data to improve the function of the service or device.

What are the best smart devices to buy?

Top Amazon Echo devices

Best Amazon Echo Show 10 (3rd Generation)

Amazon Echo Show 10 (3rd Generation)

This is the ultimate Amazon Alexa smart hub for your home. The screen is 10.1 inches with HD resolution so you can watch videos, plus it has a camera so you can make video calls. You can even access the camera while away to use it as a security system.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon, Dell, Home Depot and Staples

Best Amazon Echo Dot

Amazon Echo Dot (3rd Generation)

This mini Amazon Alexa hub is perfect for placing throughout your home for use as auxiliary controls away from your main hub. It’s also an excellent way to try out a smart hub before committing to something better — and costlier.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon, Home Depot and Staples

Best Amazon Echo Studio

Amazon Echo Studio

This Amazon Alexa hub is designed for audiophiles, thanks to its five directional speakers and the integration of Dolby Atmos sound technology. It can even automatically adapt to the acoustics of your room and can be paired with an Echo Sub for superior bass.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon, Dell, Kohl’s and Staples

Top Google Nest devices

Best Google Nest Hub

Google Nest Hub (2nd Generation)

Connect and oversee all your Google and Nest devices with this Google Assistant hub. Watch videos with its 7-inch screen, listen to music with its high-quality speaker and more. It comes in four subtle colors so it can better mesh with the rest of your home’s aesthetics.

Where to buy: Sold by Dell, Home Depot, Kohl’s and Staples

Best Google Nest Mini

Google Nest Mini (2nd Generation)

Like the Amazon Echo Dot, the Google Nest Mini is the Google Assistant introductory and budget auxiliary smart hub. You can control your smart light, listen to music and make calls. Additionally, you can have Google Assistant find the answers to your pressing questions.

Where to buy: Sold by Dell, Home Depot, Kohl’s and Staples

Best Google Nest Audio

Google Nest Audio

Google Nest Audio is the latest iteration of Google’s premium speaker after the original Google Home and its upgrade the Google Home Max. It can maintain crisp audio at higher volumes than other Google Nest smart hubs, and its bass is much stronger.

Where to buy: Sold by Dell, Home Depot, Kohl’s and Staples

Other smart devices worth checking out

Best Apple HomePod Mini

Apple HomePod Mini

This is Apple’s lone foray into the smart home hub space. It’s designed to work seamlessly with all your other Apple devices, such as your Apple TV, iPhone and Apple Watch, but it can also connect to other smart devices, including lights and thermostats.

Where to buy: Sold by Staples

Best Ring Video Doorbell 2020

Ring Video Doorbell 2020

This lets you keep an eye on your front door and monitor it from anywhere. It can pair with an Amazon Alexa smart hub to let you speak with and even see who’s at the front door through your hub. It can also pair with Google Assistant smart hubs, though the functionality is limited.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon and Staples

Best Google Nest Learning Thermostat

Google Nest Learning Thermostat (3rd Generation) 

With this smart learning thermostat, you never need to adjust your temperatures again. It learns your schedule and automatically raises and lowers the temperature for you, plus a cute leaf lights up when you’re using an energy-saving temperature. It’s also compatible with Amazon Alexa.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon, Dell, Home Depot, Kohl’s and Staples


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Jordan C. Woika writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.

BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers.