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Digital spies: What cyber experts say about the devices you use - KSBY.com | San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Area News

Digital spies: What cyber experts say about the devices you use every day

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An Amazon Echo device on display at Best Buy. (KSBY photo) An Amazon Echo device on display at Best Buy. (KSBY photo)

If you're reading this story on your Smart TV, laptop or cell phone, that device could be spying on you. That's according to cyber security experts. 

In March, leaked CIA documents revealed the agency hacked into Samsung Smart TVs to record conversations when the TVs appeared to be off. 

Tech experts are warning consumers any internet-connected device in your home is capable of keeping track of much more than you realize. 

Google Home helps Don Armstrong of Orcutt start his day. 

"Hey Google, who won last night? What was the Dodger score last night? What's the weather like? As I'm making my coffee, it's kind of cool," Armstrong said. 

His wife, Gina Friedmann, calls the device her music buddy. 

"Hey Google, change it to acoustic guitar radio," Friedmann tells her Google Home. 

The Orcutt couple is one of many Central Coast households with a digital voice assistant like the Amazon Echo and Google Home.

Kelly Paonessa works at the Best Buy store in San Luis Obispo and says the devices are in high demand.

"They are insanely popular. We get online orders for them all the time," Paonessa said. "They are constantly being asked about in the store, online, over the phone. People are constantly wanting them."

Zachary Peterson teaches cybersecurity in Cal Poly's computer science and engineering department. 

Peterson says the devices are programmed to listen for certain keywords. Turns out, they are always listening. 

"This is akin to putting a microphone that's connected to a corporation in your house," said Peterson. 

When you ask your Google Home or Amazon Echo a question, your voice is beamed to the Cloud. That question is processed and an answer is sent back to your device to tell you. 

"What does Amazon or Google do with that information once they have received it?" Peterson questions. "Do they store it for a long period of time? Are they just analyzing it to provide that answer or are they trying to build some other model about their consumers, either to provide them additional features or maybe even to monetize them?"

Armstrong isn't concerned by Peterson's warning. 

"I'm not afraid of it spying on me, no, and if I was, I'd just pull the plug out," he said. 

When it comes to Smart TVs, Peterson says you're sending information to the Cloud about your viewing habits, applications you use, websites you visit and anything you say that the television might interpret as a voice command. 

"Lots of private data that individuals may not know that they are giving their TV access to is now being sent to third-party services for analysis," he said. "I think in the most honest interpretation, it's for providing these additional feature sets but they do raise these additional privacy and security concerns."

California State Senator Hannah Beth Jackson recently introduced the Teddy Bear and Toaster Act which aims to crack down on toys and electronics that pick up conversations. 

"You have the same sort of devices that might be exploitable that were once hanging on your wall in the form of a Smart TV in the hands of our children and perhaps even spying on your children," Peterson said. 

Smart appliances like the Samsung refrigerator keep track of how long food has been inside but Peterson says it may be tracking other information, too. 

"In the hands of an attacker, it might also be useful to learn if you're home or not," he said. "If you haven't opened the refrigerator for a week, that might tell them that you're on vacation."

Armstrong argues his Google Home helps protect his house against thieves. 

"If we're on vacation, we can remotely over the app tell it to turn lights on and off so that it looks like somebody is here," he said. 

A quick fix to stop those devices from listening is the mute button. 

Peterson also advises consumers to change default passwords and settings. However, he doesn't want people to write off using digital devices. 

"Think about, what does it mean if I'm going to turn on voice recognition, who's getting access to that? Do I care or not? Maybe I don't," he said. 

Another tip to protect your privacy is to make sure you have a secure and private internet connection. Peterson says that is your first line of defense against digital attackers. 


 

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