Legislation seeks to outsmart ‘smart’ speakers

By Jordan Cunningham, Special to CALmatters

The Cunningham household recently added a family member, a system of interconnected smart speakers that goes by the name “Alexa.”  

Alexa is pretty helpful around the house. She plays the news or classic rock when I make breakfast. She reminds my kids to fold their laundry.  She plays rain sounds at bedtime to help the kids get to sleep, and then blares an alarm in the morning to wake them up for school.

This technology is an amazing achievement, to be sure.  Smart speakers have the potential to improve our lives dramatically.

What you may not realize, however, is that smart speakers and tech companies have the capability of recording your private conversations, even when you may think the device is turned off.  

Privacy in the home is at risk as this exciting technology proliferates.

You’ve probably heard the story of when an Alexa smart speaker recorded a private conversation, and then emailed the clip to someone, all without the owners’ knowledge. These devices can even be hacked, giving an identity thief a front-row seat to your private life.

In our homes, we have some of the most personal conversations in our lives.  We talk about our health and finances, our hopes and fears.

We talk to our partners, spouses and kids, family, friends and acquaintances. We laugh, share stories, express our most deeply-held opinions, debate, and argue. We can and should expect those conversations to be private.

And we have a long legal tradition of safeguarding privacy.

The Third and Fourth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution are aimed at protecting homes and persons from unwarranted government intrusion. In California, we have a law against recording a conversation without consent, also called “eavesdropping.”

As a San Luis Obispo County deputy district attorney, I needed a warrant to tap a phone line and listen in on conversations of a suspected criminal.

To enjoy the convenience of this exciting new technology without giving up our privacy in the home, we need to get ahead of these dangers with common-sense protections.  

That’s why I am carrying the “Future of Eavesdropping Act,” Assembly Bill 1395, with Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks, a Democrat from Oakland. It would prohibit smart speakers and their manufacturers from saving or data mining through any recordings the devices may capture.

Californians should be able to enjoy the convenience of a modern home with interconnected technology without fearing that their most private conversations could be compromised.  In this brave new world, the Future of Eavesdropping Act is an important new step.

That way, if you decide to invite Alexa into your home, you can rest assured that she isn’t spying on your family. 

Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham is a Republican representing Assembly District 35 in San Luis Obispo, [email protected] He wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

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