Security Watch: Amazon Echo Vs. Google Home

A recent study showed Amazon’s Alexa devices leading the pack in the home automation market, with Google also steadily increasing its consumer base for its Google Home products.

Amazon

Google Home and Amazon’s Alexa-enabled Echo devices serve as virtual home assistants, allowing users to organize calendars, play music and contact friends with simple voice commands.

An often overlooked feature of voice-activated helpers, however, is their ability to assist in home security needs. But if you’re interested in jumping into the virtual assistant home security market — should you go with an Alexa-based system or Google Home?

We took a look into the security capabilities of Amazon Echo and Google Home to get an idea of what features are available, and to discern any major differences in safety offerings between the two products.

Amazon

Amazon Echo

Home Automation

Amazon Echo products allow you to use voice control to turn your house into a smart home. The device connects with the Amazon Fire TV to control your viewing experience, and to lights and thermostats from WeMo, Philips Hue, SmartThings, Insteon, Nest, ecobee, and Wink. You can dim overheads, control string lights, and adjust temperatures all without leaving your couch.

Home Security

Echo similarly connects with more overtly safety-connected external products. A Wi-Fi doorbell from Ring, for example, connects with Alexa to let you see, hear, and speak to guests arriving at your front door.

You can also install Nest security cameras, and connect them to your Alexa products to see feeds through your Echo Show or Fire TV. You can use voice commands to control what you’re seeing. For example “Alexa, show the basement camera.”

To use your Amazon Echo to get the most comprehensive security coverage, you can also connect the device to home security systems from companies like Scout Alarm and Vivint, which allow varying degrees of voice control over thermostats, locks, and cameras. 

A sample emergency Alexa command to interact with a Scout system, for example, would be “Alexa, tell Scout to send help.”

Connection to external device is enabled through Alexa Skills, which can be used to increase your home’s safety and serenity in many ways.

Google

Google Home

Home Automation

Google Home provides similar smart home and security offerings, and in many cases, can connect to the same third-party providers as Amazon Echo. In home automation, Google Home is compatible with smart lighting and thermostats from companies which include Emberlight, Philllips Hue, WeMo, and Levitom.

Home Security

Until recently, Amazon may have pulled ahead in this category due to its security camera feed casting ability. But Google recently announced (and promptly executed) plans for more seamless integration of Google Home and Nest cameras, to allow Google Home users to broadcast feeds through Chromecast.

(Nest and Google share the same parent company, so it’s fair to expect continued integration as the Google Home products develop.)

Smart locks are available to connect to Google Home through August, so you can use voice commands like “Ok Google, ask August, lock my door” to remotely close up.

You can also connect to home security systems such as AlarmForce, Scout Alarm and Vivint.

Data Safety In Both Devices

The value of the various home security features offered by Amazon and Google’s virtual assistants could be undermined if the data collected by the devices is vulnerable.

Many consumers fear introducing one of these devices into the home due to their “always listening” capabilities. Both devices listen to their environments on alert for for a “wake word,” after which they are ready to execute a command. (Example wake words: “Alexa,” “Hey Google.”) Words spoken after a wake word are recorded. But what exactly do the companies do with those recordings?

According to The Verge, information recorded by Alexa is sent to an Amazon server, where it is then used to create the Alexa response and to help develop Alexa devices’ artificial intelligence capabilities. Google similarly stores information in data centers.

The same July Verge piece discussed an article which claimed that Amazon was considering beginning to share transcripts of recorded information with developers. Amazon told The Verge at the time that the company did not pass along audio recordings, and gave developers only information vital to processing a request. (This appears to mostly align with text currently in the Third Party Services section of the Alexa Terms of Use). The piece also claims, however, that Google does pass along collected data to developers.

Wired has also examined questions that have emerged over what jurisdiction law enforcement has to access audio logs during criminal investigations, to what extent data storage facilities are secure against breaches, and how the listening capabilities of such devices could be taken advantage of by hackers.

Amazon has tried to protect user information from law enforcement in the past, but Wired notes that Google’s privacy policy states the company “will share personal information with companies, organizations or individuals outside of Google if we have a good-faith belief that access, use, preservation or disclosure of the information is reasonably necessary to, meet any applicable law, regulation, legal process or enforceable governmental request.”

There is not a lot of public information on the specific details of each company’s data-sharing methods, so that dearth of clarity is a risk to consider when weighing the security value of an Amazon Alexa device or Google Home.

Takeaways

Amazon Alexa devices and Google Home have remarkably similar security and smart home offerings, so home safety and smart capability will likely not be the deciding factors between the two systems. From the limited amount of information available about passing data along to third parties, it does look like, at least for the time being, Amazon may keep your recorded information slightly more secure.

In terms of security offerings within the home, both Amazon Echo and Google Home offer integration with products that allow for increased smart control of the home and safety measures. In many cases, the available third-party providers are the same for both devices. The main difference until recently appears to be the ability to cast streams from security cameras, and that capability is still limited to select equipment offerings. But with the new integration of Nest and Google Home, the security capabilities between the two systems appear inconsequential.

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