NEW YORK (AP) — Many people start thinking about a smart home when they get a voice-activated speaker such as Amazon’s Echo or Google Home, although such gadgets aren’t strictly necessary. Nor do you even need actual smart lights and appliances, as you can buy smart plugs, adapters that control existing lights or whatever you plug into them.
There are some concerns to keep in mind. Many devices are constantly listening for commands and connect to corporate servers to carry them out. Not everyone is going to be comfortable with live microphones in their homes (though your phone may already be doing the same thing, if you had enabled assistive features such as “Hey Siri” and “OK Google”).
For the most part, recordings will leave home only when you trigger the device, such as by speaking a command phrase like “OK Google” or pressing a button to get the device’s attention. But an Amazon device mistakenly recorded and sent a family’s private conversation to an acquaintance after the device mistakenly thought it heard the trigger word followed by a “send message” request.
Check what safeguards a device offers before buying. Smart speakers, for instance, typically have a mute button to disable the microphone completely. Mozilla’s Privacy Not Included project seeks to warn consumers about products with security or privacy problems. A general web search also might turn up complaints.
In general, it helps to stick with major brands, as their corporate reputations are at stake if they’re caught taking shortcuts. Bigger companies can also quickly fix security holes that crop up. Gadgets from startups and no-name brands may offer little or no protection; those companies may be more concerned with rushing a product to market.
Bigger companies, however, are also more likely to use your data for marketing. So consider the trade-offs.
Even if a product works as intended, it may be leaving a record that can resurface after hacks, lawsuits or investigations .
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Manufacturers, for instance, typically store the voice commands their gadget send over the internet and use that data to help them personalize their services — and, potentially, advertisements. These voice snippets may include music or conversations in the background. Reputable brands let you review and delete your voice history; be sure to do so regularly.
And think twice about smart locks and their digital keys. In a child-custody dispute, for instance, your ex might subpoena the records to learn that you’ve been staying out late on school nights. If you rent, a landlord might suspect an unauthorized occupant if you create a guest key that’s used daily.
CHOOSING A SYSTEM
As cable and internet services become commodities, the companies behind them are turning to smart homes for new sources of revenue. AT&T’s Digital Life and Comcast’s Xfinity Home offer cameras, door controls and other smart-home devices. The packages are good for those who prefer one-stop shopping, though you might save money and get more choices by shopping around.
For the do-it-yourself approach, consider which company’s services you’re already using heavily.
If it’s Amazon, then devices powered by its Alexa digital assistant might work best. There’s a range of Alexa products, including refrigerators and washing machines. You can command an Alexa microwave oven to “reheat one potato” instead of having to look up how many seconds. It’ll also reorder popcorn with a command — from Amazon, of course.
Likewise, if you’re a heavy Google user, choose devices that support Google’s Assistant. Apple has products under the umbrella of HomeKit, while Samsung has SmartThings. Some products will work with more than one digital assistant.