Lawmakers Push for Device Privacy

Your gadgets are listening

Key Takeaways

  • A proposed New York state law would mandate that smart devices alert users when microphones are listening to conversations. 
  • Some observers say that the proposed law should be a model for other states. 
  • California passed a law that protects Internet-of-Things data by ensuring manufacturers equip devices with appropriate security features.
A wireless security camera with someone holding a smartphone in the background.
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Smart devices would have to alert users when microphones listen to their conversations under a proposed New York state law. 

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recent proposal would cover gadgets that can record, store, and transmit recordings, like smartphones, smart speakers, and smart TVs. It’s part of a growing nationwide movement to enhance user privacy. Some observers say that the proposed law should be a model for other states. 

"The ability to control devices in your home and be able to decide if they can record you or not is unprecedented," Paul Katzoff, the CEO of cybersecurity software firm WhiteCanyon Software, said in an email interview.

"Everything has microphones and internet access, which means organizations can record you (and put it in their License Agreement that they can), or others can hack your devices and then listen to you."

"New York’s proposed law would make a strong statement to manufacturers that they can’t circumvent users’ privacy."

New Yorkers Say 'No' to Eavesdropping

The proposed New York law would require that smart devices disclose that they are recording their owners before a device is set up. The measure is intended so that owners can manage their settings knowing just what they want their devices to hear. 

"We’ve all heard reports of smart speakers and other connected devices recording people without their knowledge, and that possibility raises important questions about privacy for the future," Cuomo said in a news release.

"This legislation requires the makers of these devices to disclose the facts so New Yorkers can make informed decisions about the capabilities of what they buy. Everyone has a right to know the facts about the devices they buy, and those facts should be prominently displayed, not hidden in the fine print."

Other states are considering laws to protect users' privacy from smart devices. California passed a law that protects Internet-of-Things data by ensuring manufacturers equip devices with appropriate security features.

Computer surveillance equipment displaying personal information on the screens.
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"Most states have laws about recording voice calls," Paul Bischoff, privacy advocate for the website Comparitech, said in an email interview. "Some states require that both parties consent to be recorded. Others, including New York, only require one party to consent."

However, Bischoff said he considers the proposed New York law unnecessary. "I don't think consumers are unaware of whether a device can record them," he added.

"Furthermore, while accidental recordings do sometimes get uploaded to the cloud, the idea that voice assistants constantly listen and analyze what you say is a myth. In most cases, recordings are only uploaded after the device hears the trigger word."

A recent consumer privacy survey from cybersecurity company NordVPN found that of the 50% of Americans who own smart home devices, 71.6% have two or more devices turned on in their homes at any given time, and only 26.6% turn off the device’s microphones when not in use, according to Daniel Markuson, the firm’s digital security expert. Additionally, over half are concerned their devices could get hacked or that the devices are listening when not prompted.

Security Holes Abound

"Most IoT devices have limited computing power and storage, which leaves little room for robust security features, and passwords are often left as the factory defaults, allowing nearly anyone to log into them," Markuson said in an email interview. 

A hacker eavesdropping on a doctor's video call.
EvgeniyShkolenko / Getty Images

Users should take precautions until laws are passed nationwide, like the one proposed in New York, that better protect privacy, experts say. "Consumers should look for a microphone on any Wi-Fi-connected device, and cover it with tape or take the device apart and cut the microphone wires," Katzoff said. 

Markuson suggested a software solution. "If you have a router capable of running the powerful encryption protocols supported by NordVPN, you can configure your router to secure all of your IoT devices against unwanted connections," he said. 

New York’s proposed law would make a strong statement to manufacturers that they can’t circumvent users’ privacy. Until such laws become common, however, there’s always the option to turn off your smart devices when you want some privacy.

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