Hotels that decide to place smart speakers in their guestrooms must make sure they do everything they can to protect their guests’ privacy.
During a recent work trip, I stayed in a hotel room that had a smart speaker in it, but I didn’t realize it until later in the day. That’s a problem.
After checking in, I went up to my room and started unpacking. While doing so, I called my wife and spoke to her and my kids. The conversation was pretty light, just checking on how everyone was doing, how school was, whether the dogs were behaving, that sort of thing. But it was private.
After I finished hanging up my clothes in the closet, I grabbed my laptop from my bag and put it on the desk in the corner to start charging the battery. That’s when I saw the smart speaker. As you might already know, I’m not a fan of these in hotel rooms. I didn’t notice it earlier because the color of it blended in with the rest of the items around the desk and the view of it was partially obstructed by a card explaining how the smart speaker works.
For this particular smart speaker, it lights up when it’s booting up, responding to a request or the microphone has been turned off. In this case, no lights were on because it was already on and in a sort of listening mode, waiting to hear the command word to make it go active. I turned off the microphone, and the top of the speaker displayed red lights to confirm it was off.
I spoke to a couple people at the conference about the smart speakers in their rooms. Most seemed OK with it, but one person I spoke to didn’t realize the speaker’s mic was in listening mode and that they would have to turn it off themselves.
I don’t know if I will ever cross over the line into wanting smart speakers in hotel rooms, and I hope that those who do not have them will not add them. I’d also hope that those that do have them get rid of them, but I can’t realistically expect that. Instead, I would hope that they have some better practices for their use.
To be fair, I will say I appreciate that the card gives instructions on how to use the speakers, including how to turn off the microphone. That’s useful information, especially for those who are not familiar with how they work.
However, I do have a couple of bones to pick. First of all, seeing as most hotels do not have smart speakers in their rooms, any hotel that has them should make their presence more prominently known. Whether that’s on the hotel’s website, a mention to guests when checking in or having smart speakers where they are more visible in the room would be a vast improvement. While the instruction card is useful, don’t prop it up against the speaker and end up unintentionally hiding it.
Secondly, the default setting for these smart speakers should be to have the microphones turned off. My initial choice regarding their use should be opting in, not out. You have put a microphone that is listening to what I say in my room, so you should at least respect my privacy enough to let me choose whether to use it instead of having to turn it off (once I realize it’s there). Having the microphone turned off also gives the added benefit of increasing its visibility, helping guests find it.
My last point will likely be the least feasible. Make the smart speakers less physically accessible. While the microphones are listening for command words, there have been multiple news stories about people who have been able to hack into the speakers to turn them into recording devices. A story came out just a few months ago where people figured out that the microphones in these speakers treat light as sound, so they were able to manipulate the microphones using lasers. Letting someone physically access the speakers allows them to do just about anything they want to it.
I don’t think that hackers are going around every hotel room and turning the speakers into their own listening devices to steal personal information from guests, but I do believe it’s certainly possible, even plausible, that some do this on a limited or targeted basis. Why introduce this risk into a hotel room?
Hoteliers have a long history of valuing and protecting guests’ privacy. Front desk associates don’t give out the names and room numbers of guests to anyone who walks up and asks, so why introduce any element into the guest stay experience that could open them up to losing their privacy in the room?
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