Products that try to outsmart Smart Speakers

There are a couple products on the market now for people with smart speakers that fear that the speaker is always listening to their private conversations. They work by brute force; spraying ultrasonic noise into the microphone(s) and prevent the smart speaker from hearing anything but the noise. One is from a serious company called Paranoid, and another from a not-so serious company MSCHF, and their product is called Alexagate. MSCHF is a head-scratcher for me – with products like Jesus shoes (Nike shoes with Holy water in the sole), and the popular Puff The Squeaky Chicken bong that squeaks when you use it (I’m assuming it’s popular because it’s sold out), they appear to be more about hype and ephemeral products than vision & mission. You may need to be a millennial to fully understand their manifesto, but it’s an amusing read. When I see things like this that I really don’t understand my mind puts them in a category box called “performance art”.

But is there really a market for these things? Alexagate is the newer release, and the PR push is impressive. They’ve generated a lot of buzz from their efforts. The reviews range from lazy (i.e. just parroting what the manufacturer told them), to befuddled (not understanding why this product is needed). The concern about privacy is real, and so is the market for products that give users the peace of mind that comes from KNOWING they can have real privacy. Both Paranoid and Alexagate do that.

One of the reviewers suggested that the product is not needed because all you need to do is press the mute button on your smart speaker to prevent it from listening. As technically smart as they may be, they don’t understand the concern of this audience; pressing the mute button makes the smart speaker look muted… but is it? Same can be said for the little light next to your web camera; it’s not on, but does that really mean no one is watching? You could argue that the people with the privacy concerns are technically inept, but the irony is that any embedded firmware developer will tell you that the mute button and microphone LED only do what the software tells them to. In this case, the reviewer is willing to trust the manufacturer, but the privacy conscious consumer is not.

I discuss the issue of trust in a post called Naked cheerleaders, smart home devices, and the promise not to peek published earlier this year. In that blog post I talk about the many ways devices can spy even if the manufacturer is trustworthy. I see these products targeted at smart speakers as a Band-Aid on a cut that requires stiches, but they if they relieve anxiety for the people that purchase them, then they serve a purpose. With both these products, the end user is required to do something before the smart speaker will operate normally – and that is the real value; they bring awareness that the smart speaker is there and always listening.

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