Smart Speaker Privacy in a Homemade Box

Privacy is a perennial concern for those who use virtual assistants and smart devices. Engineer Chuck Carey has developed a simple device to block Amazon’s Alexa, Google Assistant, and other smart speakers from uninvited listening.

Clap on Privacy

Carey’s solution to the problems of an always-listening smart speaker comes in the form of a box called ClapperVsAlexa. When the box is open it operates normally, but with a double clap or finger snap the box closes and plays sounds that distract the device from being able to hear human voices.

“[Smart speakers] have been known to interpret some noises as requests for help,” Carey wrote in the description of his project on GitHub. “This has had some well documented “oops” moments, such as ordering unwanted goods, recording conversations that should have remained private, or just annoying folks.”

Carey uploaded the design of his ClapperVsAlexa project to GitHub last month with photos and videos demonstrating how to make and operate the system. Along with the mechanical and electrical aspects, Carey drives the point of the box home by including a drawing of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos declaring that he is listening to you through Alexa.

Continual Privacy Fights

A privacy box opened and closed by clapping is a clever answer to the question of how to keep smart devices from listening inadvertently. But, it speaks to the larger privacy problems raised by smart devices. A recent study by Microsoft found 41 percent of voice assistant users are concerned about their privacy due to passive listening by their devices.

Amazon and other smart speaker manufacturers are already in the midst of several privacy fights. In particular, Amazon is facing lawsuits and FTC complaints that it is violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). In response to some of the concerns, Amazon has taken steps such as creating an Alexa privacy center website and a command to delete Alexa recordings.

Carey is not the only one taking a consumer-based approach to privacy. The same worries spurred the development of anti-passive listening devices like Project Alias and the Mycroft Kickstarter.

Questions about privacy and smart speakers aren’t going to be resolved quickly or easily. Manufacturers, consumers, and regulators will all keep coming up with options, looking for the answer that can appease everyone, even if it’s not likely to be a box with a clapper.


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