Privacy and security

Does your alarm watch you or listen to you?

Most do not-- but there are now some that do. I can see the utility for people with mobility, dexterity, or vision issues, but I don't think it is a worthwhile feature for most people. 20 years go I would go out on sales calls and design systems for homes and businesses and the occasional client would stop me when I said that a glass break sensor was "listening" for the sound of breaking glass or a motion sensor was "looking" for movement in the room. Listening and looking in a person's home were considered intrusive, and some people would not have it. We had to be really precise in describing how these sensors worked, so that people didn't think they were compromising their privacy. Fast forward to 2018-- people are paying for devices to listen to them and watch them and they are putting all of that data onto the internet willingly. 

Everyone has to draw the line where they are personally comfortable with surveillance. Are cameras in your home too much? Are "always on" listening devices too much? Smart phones and speakers are becoming very common, and you can no longer assume that your conversations are private in other peoples' homes, near other peoples' phones, or anywhere in public, but you CAN decide for your own home. Here are some things to consider:

Motion sensor/ camera combos

Alarm motion sensors used to always be  looking for changes in the heat signatures around the room or a combination of indicators of mass and temperature. Not transmitting video for people or computers to review. Now motion sensors with built in video are available. Personally, I don't want that. No way. But, to be open about it, I don't even like it when a bra strap shows-- and I grew up during the height of Madonna's popularity. If I have to sprint through the house in a towel I do not want a camera catching that action.

Glassbreak Sensors

Glassbreak sensors match the ambient sounds to internal records of breaking glass patterns. When the match is close enough, the alarm trips. So they do listen, but they aren't recording and transmitting or using your vocal audio to sell you things, like an app might. 

Alarm panels or keypads

Newer alarm panels like Honeywell's Lyric have voice activated arming-- so they listen for the trigger phrase. I have a demo that gets confused and prompts me to repeat my command-- but I haven't spoken to it at all. So, it can make mistakes, it has its flaws. It has some nice points too. It looks sleek. It is easy to use. It is all wireless, with an easy to upgrade cellular communicator.

Many older and current panels have two-way voice activated for monitoring. This enables central station operators to speak through the keypad speaker and listen as well. While this may be really convenient and help prevent false alarms caused by missing the phone call from the monitoring station when you accidentally trip your alarm, it may be over the line for some homeowners' comfort. We don't use it, but many alarm companies do. I think all I want to say about this is that you should be aware this feature and weigh its benefits and costs.

The Honeywell Lyric has a built in camera

The Honeywell Lyric has a built in camera

The Lyric also has a built-in camera, and can snap a picture when you arm or disarm. I can see some utility in that, but the photos of me are far from acceptable. The angle is horrid and I would rather never lay eyes on them. That said-- my point here is know what your alarm does if you value your privacy.

Check the settings on your computers.

Windows 10 (and other OS) have built in listening "helpers". You can turn that off, but the system will still offer it every chance it gets.

Check the settings on your smart phone.

This is tricky-- I have set mine to NOT listen, yet tapping on the microphone symbol (located near the search bars) can activate the device to listen anyway. When I first got it, I loved the convenience of telling my phone to navigate to XXX place, and have it accurately do so-- but it rarely did it without me having to tap or look at it, so I'd have to pull over anyway. Once I deactivated it, my expectations were lower and I knew I had to manually enter the address each time. It took a few seconds prior to embarking on my journey, but it worked way better. I occasionally wish I could say "ok Google now" and start a search or settle a dispute instantly, but I think  I am better off for having it deactivated. 

There are apps that ask for microphone permissions. (and camera permissions)

You may have chosen to install them, and they may be listening, even when you deactivate the voice activated search feature. I have no solution for this other than to uninstall the apps. If they are useful enough, you might decide it is worth it to have the possible intrusion (and remember- it isn't illegal because we agree to it in the installation process). Ever notice ads popping up as you browse that seem especially relevant to recent conversations you have had? You're not paranoid. There is a reason for that. Consider what you say near your phone-- all sorts of private things-- credit card numbers, your hopes and it ok for the apps to have that info? I know people who have gone back to flip phones-- they don't have those worries. (See:

Home automation speakers/microphones/cameras

(Alexa Cortana Siri Echo and more)

They are listening and watching. Can they substitute for a traditional security system without being intrusive? For my home-- I don't want to leave it up to facial recognition or voice matching or loud noises tripping analysis by an internet company to decide if police need to come. It is outside of my comfort range. I would rather get up and tap a button on the keypad to arm the system or punch my code to disarm it than vocalize my commands. I would rather not have video analyzed to determine if there is a visitor in my home.

Having that kind of information-- our conversations, our associates, our schedules-- allows one to make all sorts of assumptions-- and cause all sorts of actions or responses. I read "1984" and I don't want to live in that world.

Many innovations sound kind of slick, but I think it is still true that security is best when you actually do have to think about it. Having your system disarm when you arrive at the door without doing anything because your phone is in your pocket on the doorstep? What if it isn't in YOUR pocket? I could go on with the hypothetical situations, but I'll stop here. I love technology and I am cautious about it. You should be cautious too.