Play it safe when it comes to guest privacy
 
Play it safe when it comes to guest privacy
08 DECEMBER 2017 8:25 AM

As consumers show their increasing desire for smart speakers, hoteliers should resist the urge to put them in their guestrooms before we fully understand how they will affect guest privacy.

Airbnb has a bit of a problem in that some of its hosts have been hiding cameras around their properties to secretly film guests.

To put this into context, this is only a handful of creepy hosts out of countless others who have no desire to spy on their guests. Still, for the guests who discovered these hidden cameras, some disguised as motion detectors and others just iPads left to record whatever happened, this is a massive violation of privacy. Also, consider the fact we’re only hearing about the guests who discovered the cameras and have gone public with their complaints. Who knows how many haven’t come forward yet, or how many never realized they were recorded?

This news should, of course, disgust every hotelier. Safeguarding a guest’s privacy is a core tenet of the hotel industry, and rightfully so. At the same time, be careful about jumping up on that high horse and railing against this invasion of guest privacy, especially since the company involved is Airbnb. I say this because there’s growing interest in—and growing implementation of—smart speakers, virtual assistants or whatever you want to call them in the industry.

I’m referring to devices like the Amazon Echo and the Google Home. I’ve written about this topic before, but I’m writing about it again because I hope to at least slow down the pace of adoption so we can better understand how these devices work and how secure they are (or aren’t). At the moment, HTNG has a workgroup that’s looking at the legal implications and deployment best practices. That’s great news, and I think the industry should give the organization time to do its research.

These devices are equipped with a microphone to listen for an activation word or phrase, allowing users to ask the devices to answer questions or perform tasks hands-free. That means the device is always listening, but the companies behind them say the devices only send back the recordings when the user says the activation word. That sounds like a pretty good safeguard, right?

Except there are occasionally bugs in the system. A tech journalist wrote as recently as October that his Google Home Mini was “waking up thousands of times a day, recording, then sending those recordings to Google.” The reporter only discovered this after looking at his Google My Activity portal assistant section, which showed thousands of entries. The reporter contacted Google, which immediately responded and created a firmware fix that corrected the issue.

So, good news, the company acted responsibly and fixed the problem. The bad news is, it could happen again. The other bad news, something like this, or another part of such devices, is exploitable and can be used to hack into the devices to steal user information. Wired reported earlier this year a security researcher turned an Amazon Echo into “a wiretap” through some malware.

I’m not saying don’t invest in smart speakers. I’m just saying, don’t do it yet. Let the technology mature, let the tech experts in the hotel industry experiment with them and learn how best to implement them. We always hear about how the hotel industry is behind when it comes to technology; while that’s true to varying degrees, sometimes that’s not always a bad thing. In journalism, so many outlets race to be the first to report on a story, but time and experience repeatedly show us that it’s better to be right than first. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, but when you’re pushing to be the first, sometimes it’s easy to overlook something that could turn out to be a major problem.

Guests care about their privacy. That might seem to be relaxing a bit, considering how much people share on social media and by jumping at the chance to participate in Amazon Key, a service that would allow Amazon delivery drivers to enter their home to drop off packages while being monitored by an Amazon Cloud Cam, which just sounds crazy to me.

Consider it from this angle. The hotel industry felt the hotel owner and management company involved in the Erin Andrews case shouldn’t be held liable in her lawsuit, but a jury decided against them and awarded her $55 million. People might not fully understand how a smart speaker actually works and know the risks of using it, but if their privacy is invaded and their personal information is stolen somehow, they’ll know who put that device in their hotel room. Right or wrong, they’ll try to hold hoteliers responsible.

So again, be careful about what new technology you introduce into your guestrooms before you make your investment. These devices are growing in popularity, and you might worry about being the only one on the block who doesn’t have them, but when you’re dealing with guest privacy, it’s better to play it safe.

Am I being too paranoid? Am I coming across as a Luddite? Do you agree with me and my tin foil hat? Let me know in the comments below or contact me at bwroten@hotelnewsnow.com and @HNN_Bryan.

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