Kids and Home Assistants: How to Keep Your Family Safe

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“Alexa, are mermaids real?”

If you have a home assistant like the Amazon Echo (commonly known as Alexa) or something similar, you’ve probably heard your kids asking questions like this. Most of the time, such queries are harmless — but what happens when your kids’ questions, or even more-personal information, is inadvertently sent to your entire contact list, including your co-workers and boss?

Chances are, if your kids ask a funny question and it accidentally gets sent out, most of the recipients will have a sense of humor about it. However, not everything that happens with home assistants is always so innocent and cute, and as a parent, you need to take steps to keep your kids and your family’s information and privacy secure.

The Potential Risks

There is no doubt that home assistants are useful and convenient to have around. Not only can you play music and manage the details of your life, but kids can use different apps for homework help, reading and entertainment. Depending on the apps or skills you load onto the device, it can become a key part of your everyday life.

However, as these devices become more popular, the security risks are becoming more complex. Some of the most serious risks to children include:

Inappropriate content. Anyone who has used any time of voice-activated device knows that they aren’t perfect, and the command you give isn’t necessarily the result you get. Although home assistants will only play the content you connect to the device, if you have content you don’t want the kids accessing, they can still hear it. In other words, even though your kids aren’t technically allowed to access your playlist of 90s gangsta rap, with the right command Snoop Dogg will make an appearance in your living room.

Unintended purchases. The idea of a home assistant making unwanted purchases has become a punchline of modern life (even the subject of a Super Bowl commercial) but it’s a real risk with kids. Without the right controls, you could end up with ongoing shipments of LEGO.

Eavesdropping. Although the makers of home assistants assure consumers of their privacy, there have been incidents in which private conversations have been recorded and shared. One of the tradeoffs of using one of these devices is giving up some of your privacy, but eavesdropping devices are collecting information about your family, including your kids. There isn’t a lot of transparency about how the information being collected is going to be used, so the fact that the device is potentially collecting information about your kids’ lives, including medical information, school information and social information is of concern. And it’s not just the device manufacturers you need to worry about. If your home network isn’t properly locked down, hackers could also access your device and steal information about you and your family.

Protecting Your Kids

The question, then, is: Can you protect your kids and still enjoy the convenience of a home assistant? The answer is yes, but you need to take some important steps.

For starters, it’s vital to install home network security to protect all of your smart devices, including home assistants, appliances, toys and anything else that connects to the internet. Keeping hackers out and blocking viruses and malware can go a long way toward keeping everyone safe.

Next, take the time to learn about the security features on your home assistant and enable them. Both Amazon Echo and Google Home offer parental controls that block explicit content, for example, as well as any apps or skills that aren’t appropriate for kids. You can also turn off the device’s microphone when it’s not in use, delete command histories and set specific words to launch commands. Employ these features to ensure that your kids can’t access inappropriate content or make purchases you didn’t authorize.

Security experts also recommend only creating user profiles for adults and not using the feature that allows you to create specific profiles for children. It might seem safer to only allow your kids to use their own profiles, but creating the profiles reveals more information about your kids, which can be used for marketing purposes.

Ultimately, keeping your kids safe when you have a home assistant boils down to using common sense and the security features built into the devices, in addition to protecting your home network from prying eyes. When you do, your assistant will be useful — even if it’s just to determine whether mermaids are real.

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