Privacy in a World of Always On

One aspect of the Internet of Things world is the issue of voice controls that are always on.

Federal regulators are now being asked to dig into the privacy implications of such consumer devices.

A letter detailing some of the always on devices was sent to the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (yes, the acronym of the group name is EPIC).

Not sure what, if anything, the government will do in reaction to the letter, but the issue is one that ultimately will have to be resolved in the marketplace.

Here are some of always on issues detailed in the EPIC letter:

  • Google’s Chrome browser contains code that routinely captures private communications. The browser constantly ‘listens' to the user using the computer’s built-in microphone, and when the user speaks the words “OK Google,” Chrome activates a voice-to-text search function. This means that Chrome users are subject to constant voice recording in their private homes, without permission or even their knowledge.
  • Mattel's Hello Barbie is a WiFi-connected doll with built-in microphone. Hello Barbie records and transmits children's conversations to Mattel, where they are analyzed to determine all the child's likes and dislikes.
  • Samsung’s internet-connected SmartTV has an always on built-in microphone that routinely intercepts and records the private communications of consumers in their homes. When the voice recognition feature is enabled, everything a user says in front of the TV is recorded and transmitted over the net to a third party. Samsung does not encrypt all of the communications it sends to its third party voice-to-text processor.
  • Microsoft’s always on voice and motion recorder Kinect is now installed in its Xbox videogame consoles. The Kinect sensor tracks and records users’ voice and hand gestures when users say the word “Xbox” followed by various permissible command options. The Xbox console monitors conversations taking place around it, even when Xbox is turned off. The Xbox console can also register users’ faces using the Xbox camera as well as record users’ facial expressions and biometric data such as heartbeat rate.
  • Amazon has deployed its Alexa always on voice recognition software in its own internet-connected devices, and has made the Alexa voice recognition software available to third party developers to use. Alexa-enabled products listen for the word “Alexa,” which triggers the device to record and send the recording to Amazon’s cloud-based servers for processing and storage. A range of companies plan to incorporate Alexa into their internet-connected devices.
  • Google’s Nest Labs makes the Nets Cam, which is equipped with a microphone and streams video and sound to a consumer's smartphone in real time. Nest also records and stores 30 days of the footage that it collects from inside the homes of consumers.



Always on is only one of the mega issues of the Internet of Things.

Once (and if) consumers realize the implication of the always on environment, many are likely to look for ways to live in a voice sensor world that is either sometimes on or always off.

At the very least, they are likely to become much more knowledgeable about opt-in and opt-out.

Interested in IoT? Check out the agenda of the upcoming MediaPost IoT: Shopping conference here.


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