Making Calls with a Smart Speaker Raises Privacy Concerns

Privacy issues addressed by Amazon’s use of encryption

Key Takeaways

  • There are concerns about security and privacy for calls made on smart speakers.
  • AT&T promises the calls are encrypted between Alexa and itself.
  • This move represents another chapter in the evolution of the smart home.
Close up of a senior businessman using a virtual assistant at the office
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Amazon’s new partnership with AT&T allows callers to link their phones to the Alexa voice system, though some experts are concerned about the privacy and security of those calls. 

The joint venture between Amazon and AT&T highlights the rapid development of technologies deployed in smart homes, and a growing level of trepidation about incursions into our personal privacy and communications.

"I would be immediately cautious about any new method that can trigger phone calls 'from me'—because others with access to my Alexa device could thus make (or accept) phone calls on my behalf," David Kotz, a professor of computer science at Dartmouth College, told Lifewire in an email.

Giving Up Control

Kotz is the lead investigator for the Security and Privacy in the Lifecycle of IoT for Consumer Environments (SPLICE) project, a $10 million National Science Foundation research program aimed at improving security and privacy in homes that use smart devices.

He said that given the number of web-based platforms using the phone as a second form of authentication (aka 2FA, two-factor authentication), including banking, he would be reluctant to give this control to housemates or houseguests.

"Home is a place where people need to feel safe from prying eyes."

Kotz sees the Amazon-AT&T partnership as part of the ongoing evolution of smart homes and smart devices.

"We can anticipate increasing tie-ins among different categories of 'smart' devices, including both mobile and home-based devices... giving home residents increased convenience for access to information or capabilities provided by the other devices." 

Service Expansion

The linkage of Alexa and AT&T is an expansion of Amazon’s existing Alexa calling feature, which the company debuted in 2017. Experts in smart home technology say the partnership is advancing the smart home concept.

"AT&T calling with Alexa builds upon the current suite of Alexa Communication features, including Drop In, Announcements, Alexa-to-Alexa Calling and Alexa Outbound Calling," an Amazon spokesperson told Lifewire in an email. "With customers using voice services like Alexa to communicate more this year than ever before, we believe this feature is a step forward in how Alexa can help people stay connected with friends and family."

Encryption Security

To ensure customer information is secure, calls made from Alexa devices are encrypted on Amazon’s network and exchanged with AT&T over a secure connection. Customers using Alexa to access AT&T services will use the same services they use when calling from their mobile phone.

Linking your AT&T account to your Alexa device is simple: Open the Alexa app on your phone and go to settings, select the communication sub-menu, tap the AT&T button, then just follow instructions. Once linked to your account, you can dial numbers and use voice commands like, "Alexa, call Mom" or by dictating a phone number.

Woman using a Smart speaker with smart phone
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With incoming calls, which includes caller ID, you can use commands like "Alexa, answer."

To avoid off-hour interruptions, you can snooze the feature by activating Amazon’s Away Mode. Alexa Routines allow you to set specific times of the day when you want to take calls. 

AT&T’s NumberSync service allows users to make and receive calls on smartwatches, tablets, computers, and, now, Alexa devices. AT&T calling is available on post-paid plans for customers who have a compatible HD-voice mobile phone.

Security is a Priority

Kotz said the rapid development of technology in smart homes and smart devices will continue, making security and privacy an ongoing priority.

"The technology in the average home today is radically different from even a decade ago and is likely to change even more rapidly in the coming years," he said. "Home is a place where people need to feel safe from prying eyes."

Woman sitting at home, using digital tablet to remote-control smart home
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Nina Amla, lead program director for NSF’s Secure and Trustworthy Cyberspace Frontiers program, believes investments in programs like SPLICE will help us keep our homes secure and private in the future. 

"Cybersecurity is one of the most significant economic and national security challenges facing our nation today," Amla said in a statement. "NSF’s investments in foundational research will transform our capacity to secure personal privacy, financial assets, and national interests."

For AT&T users, now all you have to say is, "Alexa, call Mom."

But you still may want to consider who may be listening.