Happy Holidays from Castema (plus a few thoughts on Digital Assistants)

Happy Holidays from Castema (plus a few thoughts on Digital Assistants)

As I write this, we are approaching Christmas and nearing the end of Hanukkah. For our friends celebrating the Jewish Festival of Lights, we hope you had a Happy Hanukkah. And may it be a joyous Christmas for all those celebrating Jesus's birth. For everyone reading, we wish all of you much happiness and success in the coming new year!

Is Alexa under the tree?

As this is a technology-focused blog, I thought I'd touch on a piece of technology that is destined to be given as a gift many times over this season, if current sales numbers are any indication. (And, yes, I'm venturing a bit away just this once from my usual focus on small-business tech.) I'm speaking of the voice-activated digital assistants, the Amazon Echo ("Alexa, …") and Google Home ("OK, Google, …"). If you find yourself a recipient of one of these devices this holiday season, you may be wondering two things: "What can I do with this thing?" and "What can I do to be as safe as possible when using it?"

I must admit to being a bit of a Luddite about these devices. I know plenty of people love their digital assistants, and it's not that I don't see the appeal, it's just that it doesn't appeal to me all that strongly. This strikes my wife as odd, given my geeky tendencies in many other aspects of life. I'm not really sure the reason for my lack of interest. Maybe it just feels unnatural speaking to an object, despite the futuristic, science-fiction coolness factor of asking your computer to do your bidding.

That aside, I did receive an Amazon Echo Dot as a gift not long ago, and in the interest of science, I've been messing around with it a bit. (I do these things for you. You're welcome.) My experiences are based on the Amazon device family, but similar concepts would apply to the Google Home.

The Privacy Debate Rages On

First, let's address the privacy aspect. There's an ongoing debate about whether you're giving up too much of your privacy if you use these devices, as well as some questions about whether the devices may be listening beyond just your commands that follow the "wake words" such as "Alexa," or "OK Google." I don't have any insight to add to that debate other than a few facts.

  1. Yes, the devices are always listening, otherwise they wouldn't know when you've said a wake word and are addressing them with a command.
  2. Amazon and Google have said the devices are not recording anything other than when you say the wake word, then they record your command and send it to their servers to be interpreted and responded to.
  3. To my knowledge, neither company has ever said categorically that the devices will always behave the way they behave now. In other words, it's entirely possible that a future update could add functionality that records things the device hears other than what comes after the wake words. In fact, it's recently been reported that patent filings by the companies speak of the potential to listen for trigger words in your conversations that may alert the company to opportunities to suggest a product or service to sell you. Though again, both companies say their devices do not currently do this.

Securing Your Device

Assuming you're comfortable with those facts, what steps can you take to take to minimize your risk of being hacked when using your digital assistant? Here are a few tips:

  • Secure your Amazon or Google account with a strong password. Everything these companies are doing to secure your information is for nothing if the account containing all your settings is easy to hack because of a poorly chosen password.
  • Minimize accidental commands by hitting the mute button, which disconnects the microphones, when you leave the house, or when watching tv or hosting a party. (Especially if your niece named Alexa is coming over for Christmas!)
  • Check your settings, and either disable voice purchases altogether, or enable a password to confirm purchases before Alexa goes and buys some crazy product because you watched a South Park episode from earlier this year, where they had fun by triggering viewers' digital assistants to add some embarrassing products to their shopping lists.
  • Keep your device away from your windows. This sounds odd, but is really a thing. Especially if your device is visible from outside, neighbors and passers-by may be tempted to yell through your window and prank you with some unexpected music, or unexpected purchases. Or worse yet, if you've tied in a home-automation system, you wouldn't want someone outside to order Alexa to open your garage or unlock the front door. (Thus the mute button suggestion above when not using the device!)
  • Many of the nifty home-automation tricks ("skills" in the Alexa parlance) rely on third-party connected devices, part of the so-called Internet of Things (IoT). Many IoT devices have been notoriously lax in their security, so take the time to check any connected devices to change default passwords and secure any logins associated to those devices.

The Fun Stuff

Finally, how do we make it do cool tricks? You know, like, "Alexa, turn on my TV to ESPN and dim the lights." There are tons of options, and the scope of what is possible is beyond this article, but I'll get you pointed in the right direction.

  1. You'll need to download the appropriate app to set up your device, and to enable new functionality, in my case the Amazon Alexa app which I installed on my smartphone. The initial setup got the device connected to my WiFi network and my Amazon account, and set me up to play music from Amazon, and from my Spotify account.
  2. Next, check in the app for existing "skills" that are available for your device. Some skills enable capabilities (games, music, etc.) that don't require additional devices, while others work with particular manufacturers' hardware devices. For example, in my case, I found skills that let me control devices I already have, such as my Sony Smart TV and my Harmony Hub remote control.
  3. To control things in your house, you need a device that is known to be compatible with your digital assistant. That may mean some expensive new purchases. Be sure to do some Internet research into what other people have done and what devices are compatible before you jump in and make a purchase. In some cases the device itself is directly compatible, or in other cases, a product such as a smart home hub, or platform like IFTTT (If This Then That) is required as a middleman, to translate between the Echo or Google Home and the device. Also check for different options depending what you want to do, for example, with lighting, do you need a fixture, outlet, or switch that is connected, or would it be better to use a smart bulb that is controllable?

Making those things work was admittedly a bit exciting to my inner geek self. Now, time will tell if I like controlling these things with my voice, versus just picking up the remote control, which of course is really not that hard. Especially for someone old enough to remember when "remote control" meant ordering your younger brother to get up and turn the dial to change the channel on the TV.

I hope you enjoyed this little diversion into one of the hotter pieces of consumer tech right now. Next month I'll shift the focus back on technology for business. Whether you're hoping for a shiny new gadget, a Red Rider BB gun, or some fuzzy bunny pajamas, please accept my wishes on behalf of the whole Castema team, for a happy and memorable holiday season spent with friends and family. Happy New Year, and talk to you in 2018!