Millions of Americans are now living in "smart homes." That means their home is equipped with electronic devices that can be controlled remotely by a gadget.
Lights, thermostats, door locks, appliances and more can all be adjusted with the help of an app. Making life even easier is the fact that these smart appliances can now be controlled by virtual assistants like Amazon's Alexa.
Now, Alexa is making its way into certain hotels. But can you really trust that it's safe to use in your hotel room?
Your new hotel roommate
Amazon announced this week a new feature for its Echo devices. It's called Alexa for Hospitality and will be available in select hotels, vacation rentals, and other hospitality locations across the U.S.
It's currently available to hospitality providers by invitation only. Those include Marriott Hotels, Westin Hotels & Resorts, St. Regis Hotels & Resorts, Aloft Hotels, and Autograph Collection Hotels starting this summer.
An Amazon spokesperson said, "Customers tell us they love how easy it is to get information, enjoy entertainment, and control connected devices by simply asking Alexa, and we want to offer those experiences everywhere customers want them. Alexa for Hospitality makes your hotel stay a little more like being at home and gives hospitality providers new ways to create memorable stays for their guests."
Guests staying in rooms with Echo devices will be able to ask Alexa for hotel information, contact the hotel to request guest services, play music in their room and more. For example, guests can ask Alexa for information like pool hours or fitness center location, request room service or housekeeping, call the concierge, and more.
Providers can also configure Alexa to allow guests to control and adjust in-room devices like lights, thermostats, blinds and TVs. They can even play music from popular services including iHeartRadio and TuneIn. Guests can even use Alexa skills to check airport wait times, play white noise to help them sleep, and more.
Hotels will have the option to let guests personalize their Alexa in-room experience. Soon, Alexa for Hospitality will support the ability for Amazon customers to temporarily connect their own account to the Alexa-enabled device in the hotel room. Once connected, they can play their personal music from services including Amazon Music, Spotify, and Pandora.
Now for the scary part
You knew there had to be a scary part, right? Well there is.
If you've been following us here at Komando.com, you know that Alexa is always listening. A recent example of this going wrong happened to a family in Oregon.
They received a call from one of their friends, telling them to unplug all of their Alexa devices because they had been hacked. What happened was, one of the family's Echo devices sent a recorded conversation that took place in their home to the friend on the phone. The caller happened to work for someone who lives there and was on the family's contact list. Click here to learn the messy details of how this happened.
You know that you don't want private conversations in your home recorded and sent to anyone. Well, when we hear horror stories about the Alexas in our own home, why would we ever trust one in a random hotel room!?!
In an effort to alleviate privacy concerns, Amazon said it's built in the following privacy protections:
- Wake word - To use Alexa, simply say the wake word, "Alexa." When Alexa detects the wake word, the light ring atop the device will light up blue to indicate that she is streaming audio to the cloud, where Alexa recognizes and responds to your request. Alexa will not stream audio to the cloud unless she is activated by the wake word.
- Microphone on/off button - Using Alexa is optional. If you do not want to use Alexa, you can push the microphone on/off button built on top of the device. When the microphone on/off button is pressed, the microphones are electrically disconnected, cannot detect the wake word, and cannot stream any audio to the cloud. The light ring will turn red when the microphones are disconnected.
- Privacy - Properties can't listen to what you said to Alexa or what she said back.
- Security - Amazon encrypts all data in transit between the Echo and Amazon's servers, and all customer data is securely kept on Amazon AWS servers.
Amazon also said that with the Alexa for Hospitality feature, recordings of Alexa commands will be deleted daily. But can we trust this to be safe? I don't know about you but I'll be turning the microphones off whenever I stay at a hotel with Alexa-enabled devices in the room. Better to be safe than sorry.
Bonus: Scary! Hidden cameras are a vacationer's privacy nightmare
Ever get the feeling you’re being watched? More and more vacationers are discovering hidden cameras in their rentals or hotel rooms, and you won’t believe some of the nooks they are found in. As if the thought of being recorded isn't scary enough, the legal action (or lack thereof) in many privacy cases will surely frighten you. In this Komando On Demand podcast, Kim will share her own harrowing experience, how to spot hidden cameras, and what to do if someone’s been recording your every move.
How to avoid being tracked online
Big data is big business nowadays, and your browsing and search habits get collected, cataloged, analyzed and fed through algorithms that are designed to monetize your every move. But sometimes, all this stalking and creeping and tracking and snooping can feel a little bit too much. It certainly feels like a blatant invasion of privacy.