Why Amazon’s Guard Plus Has Security Experts Concerned

Alexa, are you listening?

Key Takeaways

  • Privacy experts are raising concerns about Amazon’s new home security service for Alexa devices.
  • The Alexa Guard Plus subscription service gives users hands-free access to emergency services and Alexa the ability to deter intruders from breaking in.
  • Some observers suggest that the service could be hacked.
Amazon Echo Dot resting on a table in someone's home
Amazon

Amazon’s new home security service for Alexa devices is raising privacy and security concerns. 

The Alexa Guard Plus subscription service recently went live in the US for $5 a month or $49 a year. The basic Guard feature can turn Echo smart speakers and displays into home security devices, while the premium version also gives users hands-free access to emergency services and Alexa the ability to deter intruders from breaking in.

"An Echo with Guard Plus enabled will be listening for more than just the trigger word," Paul Bischoff, privacy advocate with security comparison site Comparitech, said in an email interview. "That might put off some privacy-conscious users worried about their private conversations inadvertently being uploaded to the cloud. If you forget to disable it when you come back home, it could trigger Guard Plus and set off alerts. Amazon will know for sure when you are home and when you are not."

Those Aren’t Real Dogs Barking

Subscribers to Guard Plus will be able to ask Alexa to call a helpline for them to request medical, fire, or police assistance. Alexa also will be able to listen for sounds of activity in the house if its residents are away, and either sound a siren from Echo devices or play the sounds of barking dogs if security cameras detect motion.

An Amazon spokesperson told Lifewire that enabling Guard Plus doesn’t mean Alexa is always listening. "Just as Echo devices are designed by default to only detect a wake word when Guard Plus is enabled, it is designed to only detect the specific sounds you’ve selected when configuring your supported Echo devices," the spokesperson said.

Promo image showing off Alexa Guard Plus on smartphones
Amazon

But some observers suggested there was a possibility that the service could be hacked. 

"From a privacy perspective, an internet-connected device that can listen to and track every sound in a home is a potential nightmare," Adam K. Levin, founder and chairman of the cybersecurity company Cyberscout, said in an email interview. "The possibility that a rogue employee or third-party vendor could misuse privileged access to the backend of the service is just one of many concerns."

Account takeover is a possibility with a service like Alexa Guard because many users don’t use robust, unique passwords to protect accounts, Levin said. The FBI recently warned about instances of hackers accessing smart home devices through compromised passwords to send emergency police enforcement to houses, then watching the results through livestreams.

Mistakes Happen

Chris Hauk, consumer privacy champion at Pixel Privacy, warned in an email interview that the Alexa Guard service might not work as intended, positing that some sounds could mistakenly indicate an emergency, if not properly set up.

Hauk said Amazon also could be collecting additional user data through the new features, which potentially could increase homeowners' insurance rates if their insurance company had access to records of instances in the home. 

"It could also lead to unwarranted investigations if law enforcement accessed the data and interpreted it in the wrong way," he added.

Despite his privacy concerns, Hauk said the Guard service might be a hit. "As long as Amazon does not collect and sell usage data, I can see the service being an attractive option for many users," he said. "Including elderly users who may be living alone and could benefit from the 'Life Alert-style' extra monitoring and emergency response features offered by the service."

Levin suggested that the Guard’s privacy trade-offs may be worth it for some users. "Some people may need an always-on microphone in their home looking for intruders, and the privacy trade-off is worth it (for instance, in a second home)," he said. 

I’ve got so many smart speakers in my house that any burglar would probably trip over one. So, I’m not sure I need Alexa to act as an alarm system. But, for an elderly relative, for example, being able to call out for help through Amazon’s ecosystem might be an attractive option.

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