MPs launch inquiry into smart home speakers over spying risk

Smart home speakers: Amazon Alexa's 'sinister side' is to be investigated by MPs. Photo: Mike Blake/Reuters
Smart home speakers: Amazon Alexa's 'sinister side' is to be investigated by MPs. Photo: Mike Blake/Reuters

MPs are to investigate the “sinister side” of smart home speakers over concerns that they may be spying on their owners.

The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee said it will use a new inquiry to explore how devices such as smart hubs, powered by virtual assistants such as Amazon's Alexa (AMZN) and Apple's Siri (AAPL), have reshaped life in homes and workplaces, and look at what needs to be done to ensure they are safe and secure to use.

The committee said its inquiry would "examine the risks and rewards from the rising popularity of connected tech in the home and beyond, whether it should be properly designed to protect everyone in society and to what extent the current rules governing smart technology are fit for a rapidly changing future".

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Devices such as Amazon’s Echo range of smart home hubs have become hugely popular in recent years, and many gadgets now include the ability to use a voice-activated virtual assistant.

As of early 2021 there were 20 million smart speaker users in the UK.

However, there have been concerns raised in the past about user privacy and data collection.

Julian Knight, who chairs the DCMS Committee, said: “The innocent little box sitting inconspicuously in the corner of the room would seem to offer the ultimate in convenience, magically serving up information on demand, turning on lights or delivering a vast array of music.

“With such a smart set-up connected to the outside world however there is always the danger it will have a more sinister side, with users potentially sacrificing privacy, put at risk of cybercrime, or left open to uncovering harmful content online.

“Our inquiry will examine the risks and rewards from the rising popularity of connected tech in the home and beyond, whether it should be properly designed to protect everyone in society and to what extent the current rules governing smart technology are fit for a rapidly changing future.”

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These home speakers are marketed as smart assistants able to help users multi-task more easily and better organise their lives, as well as stay informed, improve accessibility and aid connectivity.

Lisa Barber, Which? computing editor, said:While smart gadgets can offer convenience and benefits to many consumers, Which? research has found some smart tech could be putting consumer privacy or security at risk, so it's encouraging that MPs intend to look into this issue.

"Having introduced the Product Safety and Telecommunications Bill, it is vital that the government now pushes forward to ensure devices meet certain security standards, backed by strong enforcement.

"In addition, online marketplaces and retailers must also be given additional obligations to ensure the safety and security of products sold on their sites, regardless of whether the seller is third-party."

Watch: Chatting with Amazon Echo's Alexa