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Speaking of security: Smart speaker risks and rewards

The smart speaker market may still be in its relative infancy, but with the rise in connected devices and a growing demand from consumers for more convenience, this is one market that is maturing rapidly. But as with any transformative growth in the digital landscape, cautionary tales have come to light, flagging up concerns around security hacks and privacy invasion. Are these warnings legitimate or are they just scaremongering tactics built on misinformed opinion? Olivier Legris, lead strategist at Future Platforms explores the proliferation of this market and considers the real threats posed by smart speakers of the future.

Our homes are supposed to be safe havens, but with modern houses being increasingly connected, a question mark hangs over their inviolability, leading us to wonder if they are in fact becoming hotbeds for cyberattacks.

According to Gartner, the number of internet-enabled devices in use globally is expected to hit 8.4 billion by the close of 2017; a figure which is hotly tipped to soar to 20.4 billion by 2020. Drilling deeper into these forecasts, Gartner has also flagged that 75% of U.S. households will have smart speakers by 2020.

Global Market Insights (GMI) bolsters this prediction, indicating that the smart speaker market will feel a strong surge, fueled by the accessibility to higher network connectivity and a push to meet the increasing needs for consumer convenience. Indeed, GMI forecasted that the size of this market will exceed $13 billion, with 100 shipments of over 100 million units by 2024.

Drivers of change

Armed with this foresight and to stay ahead of the competition curve, device manufacturers are investing in the improvement of smart speaker functionality, pushing them beyond their initial music-playing capacity. While the development of the Bluetooth speaker played a part in driving the growth of this market, it was the Amazon Echo, combining artificial intelligence with Bluetooth technology and a voice-activated interface, that was first to truly disrupt this scene, marking a turning point in terms of driving interest in and fast-scale consumer adoption of the technology.

Dominant companies such as Amazon have, for a few years, refocused their attention on developing voice technology — perhaps spurred by visions of how voice may become the second generation of search engine. And so, transformational changes in the smart speaker market have inspired others to get on board the innovation train. Therefore, with Google and Apple both hot on Amazon’s heels, we have seen the evolutionary journey of the smart speaker accelerate.

Speaking engagement

As more players enter the market, aggressive pricing from the likes of Amazon may have turned the thumb screws on the competition, but it has also had a favorable impact on adoption rates as smart speakers of today become more affordable. But pricing is not the only allure.

The concept of a smart home is changing the way we live, and when connected devices continue to develop increased benefit to the consumer — by making their life better in some way or offering more convenience by making it possible to, for instance, program a complete and autonomous home system — engagement with smart speaker technology will rise.

What’s the use?

Since the launch of the first smart speakers onto the market, adoption levels have been on the rise. However, there have been some levels of hesitation to adopt the technology due to doubts around the usage factor — for consumer and developer alike — because no one has yet demonstrated a usage that we can’t live without.

From a developer’s perspective, there is still a great deal of constraint imposed by the companies behind the technology. This is particularly pertinent in terms of what can be done at voice level, which adds limitations to achieving a group of functions that have the power to change consumer behavior.

Currently, the technology is based on simple commands — perhaps requests for music or simple reminders, similar to how it works on the iPhone, for instance, where the Siri kit is used only for specific use cases such as ordering a taxi or booking a meal.

While aggressive pricing has been a draw for some, it still remains out of reach for others, which has also fed into the levels of consumer adoption. Consumers need to justify spending up to four times more for a product which is not such a distant relation from the Bluetooth speaker at this point in time. While the smart speaker is still seen as an entertaining gadget, rather than a useful commodity, not all consumers will feel the investment is worth it.

Beyond pricing, the issue of distribution has also been detrimental to adoption as it has been so limited. Both Amazon’s and Google’s assistants have been available only online. But often, consumers need to see these products on the shelf. The lack of opportunity to tangibly explore them can turn consumers off. It is not a surprise that one of the first things Amazon did when taking over Whole Foods was to sell Amazon Echo speakers.

The last hurdle for adoption is a challenging one. Homes are symbolic. They increasingly represent our last private space. So to bring something into your house that is alleged to “spy” on you is a big step to take. The challenge with any technology is that consumers don’t own it for the sake of owning technology. It has to function in some way and have a positive impact on life — making it better, more convenient, easier.

At the moment, the threat-versus-benefit balance is weighted towards the threat. Once the real usage is cracked and the benefits become clear, the scales will tip in favor of the tech. Facebook offers a strong example of how users will readily make this switch, trading off privacy for the benefits.

And so, once smart speakers become an object of necessity and a means of making life better, then we could have a scenario where any residual concerns around trust and security fade in importance when offset by the increased efficiency and convenience that the devices could give in return.

Should we be worried?

While convenience and pricing attract some buyers, they do not overshadow all security concerns, especially those associated with adopting a new technology into your home that seemingly listens to your every word. But is it realistic to assume that this will be a long-term hesitation built on worries over hackability and invasion of privacy? Given the quick tradeoff that some generations of consumers are demonstrating between convenience over data, this scenario seems unlikely.

The scaremongering and media hype surrounding today’s smart speaker does not necessarily paint a realistic picture.

A prime example of scaremongering tactics is evident in the recent news that Chinese developers — using a technique called the dolphin attack — discovered a “terrifying” vulnerability in some of the leading voice assistants. Here, the vulnerabilities were claimed to affect “every iPhone and Macbook running Siri, any Galaxy phone, and PCs running Windows 10 and even Amazon’s Alexa assistant.”

Any consumer reading about the dolphin attack, at face value, will of course feel threatened.

But looking beyond the surface, it’s not as devastating as first assumed, particularly when it comes to smart speakers.

In reality, these hacks were made possible only when the attacker was within close proximity of the device — within inches, in fact. In which case, it’s difficult to consider the possibility of a home-based Amazon Echo, for example, being hacked in such a way by a stranger — unless he was inside your home and close to your device.

Nevertheless, this kind of remote hacking is a real fear, and is reminiscent of consumers’ concerns over contactless cards when they were first introduced. It was widely thought that if someone was close to you, they could use the NFC waves to copy the ID of the card without anyone noticing. But similarly, look at contactless today — with clear information and guidance, consumers have come to understand that because of the physical distance, this scenario is unlikely. Usage and trust has increased and concerns have all but faded into nothing.

The findings from examples like the dolphin attacks are important in raising awareness to potential threats — but the underlying takeaway from this is that a physical presence and proximity was needed for it to happen.

From a security perspective, the big guys such as Amazon, Google and Apple have delivered smart speakers to the market that are, in fact, fairly secure. The main security threat will most likely come when cheaper products enter the scene, where you do not know who or what lies behind them. It will be interesting to observe consumer patterns this Christmas and next, when simpler, copycat versions hit the market. This is when the alarm bells will need to ring out.

Conversations being recorded remotely, spying from a distance, invisible attackers … these will be the headlines that will warrant the serious attention. At this point, home-based smart speaker security will then need to come under harder scrutiny.

There is, at least, a greater capacity to control the threat within a private space like your home. However, the possibility of remote hacking will generate a new plateau of concerns when it comes to smart speaker usage in public spaces.

Imagine an airport lounge, a shopping mall or a hotel reception … these could be the real hotbeds for cyberattacks. It could also raise serious ethical questions about ownership and responsibility. Will we start to see stickers on store-front windows as we have for CCTV? Warning customers that a smart speaker is in operation?

Future sense

Hackers will continue to try their hardest to create chaos in our lives, and there will always be manufacturers who try to beat the competition with shortcuts in order to capitalize on consumers’ increasingly squeezed budgets. But there is still good news for consumers: For now, there remains an element of control.

By researching and ensuring they do their due diligence, consumers can — for the moment — safeguard themselves, their smart speakers and ultimately their homes. They should be mindful of copycat versions and invest in known brands. Paying that little bit extra from the outset could save them more than just money in the long term.

The smart speaker is already on a journey of evolution — its future shape and form and function will depend heavily on the development of the wider ecosystem, and on how much more of our homes will become automated. There’s a plethora of possibilities for progress; consider TV viewing and online services such as Netflix — voice control could really create exciting opportunities in this space. And with an increase in connected devices, these opportunities will only grow.

Ultimately, smart speakers of the future could potentially become the brain of your home. If it’s a weak link, then it’s a weak link to everything else.

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