Your electronic assistant may always be listening

This March 2, 2016 photo shows an Echo Dot in San Francisco. Amazon.com is introducing two devices, the Amazon Tap and Echo Dot, that are designed to amplify the role that its voice-controlled assistant Alexa plays in people’s homes and lives. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

CHARLESTON, SC (WCBD) — The days of typing in a search engine or scrolling through music playlists are fading. Many people now have voice recognition assistants that can perform certain tasks as soon as you ask.

But, as technology advances, so do hacking tools.

News 2’s Consumer Investigator Libba Holland spent an afternoon with Josh Borders, a Charleston resident who owns the Amazon Echo.

Borders says the Echo and devices like it, such as Google’s Home and Apple’s Siri, can recognize your voice and responds when it hears a key word.

In the case of the Echo, the key word is “Alexa”.

“You can have it play music, tell you the weather, and pretty much whatever you ask it to do,” said Borders.

Borders uses the device mainly to play music, but his wife isn’t a fan of their new housemate.

“She hates it because it’s always listening. Sometimes, [Alexa will] just chime in randomly. We’ll be having a conversation, and all of a sudden you’ll hear her talk when you didn’t ask her anything,” Borders said.

In fact, Alexa randomly chimed in during our interview when we mentioned its name.

Tech expert Matt Ham says people should be wary about using these devices.

“There’s not much you can do as a consumer to protect yourself,” said Ham.

“With the prevalence of these new devices … They’re listening in the background and that’s the feature,” he said.

Ham says each company has security protocols in place to maintain your privacy on these devices. For example, it is not supposed to record anything you don’t tell it to. However, that’s about all the security it has.

“Just because it’s Amazon, Apple, or Google…those companies can still get hacked,” Ham said.

He says because the only way to use these devices is by voice recognition, there aren’t many steps you can take to protect yourself.

“Your recognition is either on or off. To use the device, it just has to be on, and if it’s on, you’re kind of at the mercy of those companies,” Ham said.

What you can do to protect your privacy, though, is to make sure you have the most up-to-date software installed. Also, only connect the device to a password-protected wireless internet network.

Finally, unplug or turn the device off if you are not using it.

“Just know your device. Know what it’s capable of and know what information you’re sharing,” said Ham.

The iPhone’s “Siri” is a similar voice recognition device. If you are uncomfortable using that feature, you have the option to turn Siri off in the settings of your iPhone.

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