Nora Vilde Aagaard
TIK MA Student

Do you know how long it takes to list all the ingredients of a Burger King Whopper? Neither did I, until now. Allegedly, it should be possible in only 15 seconds. The proof: Have a commercial trigger your smart home device to read the ingredients for you in your own living room.

What was Madonna’s first single? How tall is the world’s tallest building? So-called far-field voice controls, such as Amazon’s Echo, allow you to get answers to your questions or control your music or TV, without having to leave the couch. All you have to do is ask, and Alexa, the voice assistant of Echo, will answer your every question. Sounds quite nifty, doesn’t it?

In reality, smart home devices such as Echo, are the latest form of eavesdropping. When activated with the command “Alexa” or “OK Google”, the device records and stores every word you say in Amazon’s cloud. Since the device is constantly listening and storing information, it creates opportunity for several kinds of potential exploitation.  

On a November night in 2015, Alexa became involved in a possible murder case. In the Arkansas town of Bentonville, James Bates invited two of his friends over to his home. After drinking beer and vodka shots, the three men decided to take a bath in Bates’ bathtub. Later claiming he went to bed around 1 a.m., Bates woke up the next morning to find one of his friends, Victor Collins, floating face down in the bathtub. The event appeared to be a tragic drinking-related accident until police noticed signs of a struggle on Collins’ and Bates’ bodies. So, how did Echo get involved in the case? The other attendee on the evening of Collins’ death remembered he heard music playing from the device, and, as previously mentioned, Echo records and stores all audio when activated. The police thought the audio recording might disclose evidence of possible foul play, but Amazon refused to release the audio recording due to its privacy agreement. The case remains unsolved.

Another less grave example is Burger King who took its advertising game to a whole new level by involving Google Home devices and Amazon Echo devices. In a 15-second ad, a guy in a Burger King uniform is seen holding a Whopper, Burger King’s flagship burger.  He says “OK Google, what is the Burger King Whopper?” triggering smart home devices all over America to start reading out loud from the Wikipedia page about the Whopper. Intrusive or borderline genius? You tell me! What Burger King did not foresee was how people would respond. They edited the Wikipedia page, citing amongst other things that the Whopper contained child meat, and that it was the worst burger in America. Google later deactivated the function, making it impossible for Burger King to trigger the devices. Some believe Burger King caught the idea from a recent news story, where a six-year-old girl used Alexa to order a dollhouse and get Girl Scout cookies delivered to her front door. Her parents were, mildly speaking, surprised when the delivery arrived. Even more interesting, when a news reporter told the story on TV, using the girl’s words “Alexa, buy me a doll house and girl scout cookies”, several other Echoes were triggered and placed the same order in the households of unknowing families watching the news.

These examples are some of the first, but most certainly not the last, of how smart home devices may be exploited. Whether they are used as a possible solution to a potential murder case or as an innovative advertising method gone wrong, opening up our homes to smart home devices which store information about what we talk about and look for on the web, results in new privacy issues. On a more positive note, Amazon seems pretty serious when it comes to privacy, by not handing out sound recordings even to the police. And personally, it would be indisputably comfortable not having to get up from the couch or reach for my phone every time I argue with my boyfriend about who won the Olympics or what the weather will be like tomorrow.

© Vladimir Voronin/Adobe Stock