Amazon Alexa and Privacy

By: Kirby Smith

Is Alexa Recording Everything I say?

As Alexa has grown in popularity, one of the major concerns potential consumers express is around privacy. “Is Alexa recording everything I say and sending it to Amazon?” Where answers cannot be provided with 100% certainty, this article will attempt to examine what the true risks and best practices are that one should follow with Amazon Echos in the home. (Note: this article will focus primarily on Alexa Services. Google Home and other smart speakers operate differently.)

I have owned Amazon Echos since November of 2014. Since I own a business that configures and installs smart homes, I pay very close attention to the devices and the apps. I have also worked with hospitals that were interested in using Alexa for their patients, which carries HIPAA implications and has forced me to consider privacy across a broad band. For those who have deep worries and anxiety about the government or big business listening, I don’t believe there is any reassurance that can be given to take that away. My best advice to someone with level of concern is not to use the device (and for that matter, get rid of your smart phones and computers, too – more on this later). However, for those who want to understand the level of risk and learn how to mitigate what you can, I will attempt to explain how everything works.

First, let’s start with some background on Amazon Echo. There is the physical hardware, called Echo, and the service behind it, typically called Alexa.

The Echo Hardware

Echo is essentially a fancy Bluetooth speaker. It can fall into two categories, speaker only models and speakers with interactive touch screens. If you were to break down a basic unit that does not have a screen, you would find:

  1. Buttons: (Ø) = Mute/Stop Echo from listening, (-) = Volume down, (+) = Volume up
  2. A colored light ring (or line on the bottom of the models with screens), which indicates the activity taking place. Most important: when the device is listening, the Ring turns blue and pulses.
  3. An array of microphones that can pick up your voice from across the room, even distinguishing your voice from background noise in the environment. It has been suggested that the Echo name comes from the fact that it is listening to sounds spatially (think echoes) and isolating voice sounds.
  4. Multiple speakers (the higher the quality of the Echo, the more speakers it will have to convey added bass and treble).
  5. Small circuit boards that include chips that make the buttons work, control sounds and video (if there is a screen), and process input sounds from the

The Alexa Service

Like a computer, Alexa has memory used to store what it hears. However, this memory is only large enough to hold the equivalent of a long sentence. Locally it hears sounds but does not “activate” until it hears its wake word (which can be “Alexa”, “Echo”, “Computer” or “Amazon”). I will use the standard “Alexa” for simplicity. Until the word Alexa is heard, the memory continuously over-writes itself. Once the wake word is heard, the memory begins to store the sentence following the wakeup. From here, the sentence is encoded and sent to servers and software in the Cloud, which are collectively called Alexa Voice Services. Alexa Services is where the sentence is processed for understanding and acted upon if legitimate. The following image is from Amazon’s site:


Where it says, “Audio was not intended for Alexa,” I listened to the actual recording and most of the time it was something unintelligible from a television, non-sensical random words, or other extraneous background sound. In short, I didn’t hear anything that sounded like something truly important. Most of the time it recorded things like “Turn on the living room lights” or “What’s on the shopping list”. I personally did not find anything that alarmed me, and I also learned that it is very easy to delete them. In fact, by turning on the switch under Menu/Privacy/Review Voice Recording: Enable deletion by Voice, you can tell Alexa things like, “Alexa, delete everything I said today,” if you want to easily remove recordings. 

Alexa in the News

I do not intend to make light of the concern that Amazon may be collecting private information from us through Alexa. Let’s examine and address some of the headlines about Alexa and its lack of privacy and compare it to other real-world situations.

A family that had Alexa accidentally sends a recording of a conversation to a random contact:

“A Portland family tells KIRO news that their Echo recorded and then sent a private conversation to someone on its list of contacts without telling them.”

Amazon’s response:

“Echo woke up due to a word in background conversation sounding like ‘Alexa.’ Then, the subsequent conversation was heard as a ‘send message’ request. At which point, Alexa said out loud ‘To whom?’ At which point, the background conversation was interpreted as a name in the customers contact list. Alexa then asked out loud, ‘[contact name], right?’ Alexa then interpreted background conversation as ‘right. As unlikely as this string of events is, we are evaluating options to make this case even less likely.

Amazon’s response was that this was a very rare occurrence where things just happened to occur in the right sequence to send the snippet of conversation. There were numerous news reports and television/radio discussions about it. This was reported in May of 2018. Following this, with all the attention, there have been very few articles reporting similar occurrences.

However, consider for a moment your smart phone – something similar happens so often there is a name for it. It is called a “butt dial”. Your phone is in your pocket, purse, or even on the table and you accidentally dial someone. I have been treated to things I didn’t want to hear more times than I can count. While there is great alarm about Alexa violating our privacy, we do not seem to apply the same alarm to our phones. It begs the question, with Siri and Google assistant listening to us – not only at home, but everywhere we go – the larger threat may be our phones.

Amazon Staff Are Listening to Alexa Conversations

“Over 100 million Amazon Echos have been sold as of the start of 2019: That’s no small number. But some people might be looking to throw away their device after it emerged that Amazon employs thousands of people around the world to listen to voice recordings captured in Echo users’ homes and offices.

According to Bloomberg, the recordings are transcribed and annotated before being fed back into the software. The aim is to eliminate gaps in the voice assistant’s understanding of human speech so it can better respond to commands.”

Once again, there was media outrage. However, let’s step back and examine what is happening. First, note that by the time they are being reviewed by a human, the recordings are anonymous. If you created this product, how would you improve its understanding? You would have to examine its performance by checking what was said by your clients against the device’s understanding. To prevent overstepping privacy, you would strip away identifying information and then have people “quality check” it. I used to work in a call center. To improve customer service (as you are notified when you call) the calls are recorded and reviewed by supervisors and managers.

Amazon’s explanation was:

 “‘Amazon uses this information to train its speech recognition and natural language understanding systems, so Alexa can better understand requests and ensure the service works well for everyone,’ the spokesperson says. ‘We have strict technical and operational safeguards and have a zero-tolerance policy for the abuse of our system. Employees do not have direct access to information that can identify the person or account as part of this workflow. While all information is treated with high confidentiality and we use multi-factor authentication to restrict access, service encryption, and audits of our control environment to protect it, customers can delete their voice recordings associated with their account at any time.’”

Looking at the spectrum of devices that listen, it was admitted by Apple and Google that they do the same thing with phones, computers, watches, DVRs, and oddly, smart TVs. I have heard people say, “If you value your privacy, get rid of Echos in your home.” With so many people living in an eco-system of smart devices, simply eliminating Amazon Echo seems short-sighted.

What Can You Do?

So, what should you do, short of not using any smart devices? If you, like myself and many others, decide the pros of these devices outweigh the cons, but you are worried about your privacy, go to your settings on the device. Find the privacy settings and disable everything that might be collecting data. Quoting Forbes, April 12, 2019 article, Amazon Staff Are Listening To Alexa Conversations — Here’s What To Do:

On the Echo, you have the option to disable voice recordings for the development of new features. However, even if you do opt out, it’s possible that recordings will be analyzed by hand over the regular course of the review process.

The Alexa Privacy Settings page is available via or through the Alexa Privacy tab in Settings in the Alexa App.

You can also switch the device off and only use it when needed, or ensure it only responds to one person’s voice. At the same time, it’s possible to listen to the voice recordings associated with your account and delete all previous voice recordings in your settings.

You can also configure certain Echo devices to play a short audible tone any time audio is sent to the cloud.

A Larger Issue – The Big Guys Collecting Your Data

As I stated earlier, the larger issue is the full eco-system of consumer data. Right now, it is my opinion that Google and Facebook have far more access to your information…wherever you are.

In response to concerns, many social media services have moved privacy up on their Menus within their apps. Let’s compare Alexa Privacy controls to others:

amazon alexa pic3.png

Amazon Alexa provides five straight-forward groups of information that you can control. These allow you to review your actual raw information (listen to what it recorded), look at and delete any history related to your smart home devices (such as when you turned off the bedroom lights), and manage each type of information stored (such as shopping lists, credit cards, you name, email, etc.).

If you wish to manage your Google information, the directions are on Google’s privacy page. This is where I personally became overwhelmed. As I scrolled (and scrolled… and scrolled…), I was shocked by how many different areas Google is collecting my data. It involved websites, ads, maps, phone locations (meaning my locations), sites I visited, stores I shopped at, purchases on sites (including Amazon), music I listened to, and more. The take-away is that even if you are not using a Google app, there is a large, almost universal eco-system of Google accessible information that is monitoring and storing almost everything you do. And this system is connected to Facebook. Although I had not posted pictures of a trip to California, a friend took a picture of me at a store there. Facebook’s facial recognition tagged me, Google gained the information, linked it to the store I was in, and I began receiving ads for the store. Also, I found no easy way to review all the information Google had stored about me. There was just too much.

The combination of Facebook and Google means by cross referencing data, the two can know almost everything I am doing whether I use an electronic device or not, or whether I am at home…or not. So, in the grand scheme of things, I find Alexa listening to be the smaller threat than the activity monitoring of the larger social media companies.

Europe has so far led the way in enacting laws to protect consumer privacy. As explained in The New York Times, June 8, 2019 digital edition, the article titled-  Why Is America So Far Behind Europe on Digital Privacy?

In the past year, Congress has been happy to drag tech C.E.O.s into hearings and question them about how they vacuum up and exploit personal information about their users. But so far those hearings haven’t amounted to much more than talk. Lawmakers have yet to do their job and rewrite the law to ensure that such abuses don’t continue.

Americans have been far too vulnerable for far too long when they venture online. Companies are free today to monitor Americans’ behavior and collect information about them from across the web and the real world to do everything from sell them cars to influence their votes to set their life insurance rates — all usually without users’ knowledge of the collection and manipulation taking place behind the scenes.

We must hold our government accountable for putting laws in place to protect us. The bottom line is, until changes are made, be an informed user. When you are using a device, check to see how transparent the company is when it comes to allowing you to control the data collected about you, and how they inform you about what you can do to protect your privacy. Then take whatever steps you need to find a level of protection and privacy that helps you sleep at night.




Automatic Door Openers

By Kirby Smith

The ability to come and go as you please from your own home is not one to take for granted. When you live with muscle weakness, a physical disability, or perhaps as you age, the seemingly simple task of opening and closing your front door may be difficult. Struggling with this everyday function can be a significant barrier to independence. Beyond the front door, interior doors can pose an equal challenge, making a trip to the bathroom or bedroom unnecessarily burdensome. However, new technology is making automatic door openers more available and often more affordable for those who would benefit.

How Automatic Door Openers Work

Let’s start by understanding how these openers work. Automatic door openers can be operated in a variety of ways, including through voice control, a motion sensor, the press of a switch stationed on a wall or stand, an app on a smart device, or a fob that opens the door at the press of a button or when the fob is near the door.

For an automatic door to be reliable, it should be operational even if the electrical power fails. One designed specifically for individuals with disabilities takes this into account and operates off an internal battery. The units are always plugged in to keep the unit charged, but they use the battery to operate.

Automatic door opener systems have five key parts:

The Door – The door is part of a frame and when a door is installed, especially a front door, they are installed together. Most homes use wooden doors, however, metal doors and frames are becoming more popular in homes built in recent years.

Examples of Smart Locks

The Lock and Knob – For those who are living with a disability, or have difficulty manipulating keys and knobs, the issue of the door lock is solved with the automated door. A door is locked when the bolt extends from the lock on the door into the opening on the frame. However, the automatic door gets around this by replacing the hole in the frame with an automatic latch. To further automate the door and control access, a smart lock can be added, which eliminates keys. Visitors are given a code to enter on a keypad that can be deleted if you no longer want to grant access (such as when a caregiver no longer works for the person). Remotely, one can unlock the door for someone using a smart device, and smart locks can be controlled from within the home using one’s voice.

The Door Operator Unit – This part is attached to the door and does the actual work. It will release and open a locked (or unlocked) door, pause to hold the door open for entrance or exit, close automatically, and then return the door to being locked. A good automatic door opener should give you the option to extend the time the door is open, and allow the door to be closed by pushing the remote control again. Also, I highly recommend units that leaves the door free-swinging for manual use.

The Automatic Strike (latch hole) – An important part that works with the door operator unit is the automatic strike. The way a door usually locks is by a bolt in the body of the door extending our and entering the latch hole in the door frame. This keeps the door from being opened. With an automated door, instead of the bolt being activated to unlock the door, an automatic latch hole, called a strike, opens on one side so that the lock bolt no longer catches on it, and the door can swing open without resistance. The automatic strike (latch hole) must be installed into the door frame. This involves cutting into the frame to add the mechanical parts and replace the standard the latch hole. The latch is then attached to the automatic door opener with a thin wire run through the frame.

The Remote Control – This is the electronic key. The remote control can be either handheld or easily mounted on a wheelchair. This high-powered remote device can activate the door system from anywhere in the home or a short distance outside of the front door, and many can be activated with fingers, palm, the side of the hand and more. Not all automatic door openers have a physical fob—some are activated by voice, motion, or from a smart device.

Most of us are familiar with industrial and commercial automatic door openers, such as the automatic doors at many supermarkets. These units are usually designed to handle a great deal of traffic and must be built to take a beating. However, these units are very expensive, large, and require special entry ways. Private and home door openers are specifically designed to work within a home and are adapted to function in smaller spaces. They can be installed in just about any door in a home, small business or office.

My Personal Automatic Door Opener Setup

My Open Sesame Automatic Door Opener

I have installed a lot of automatic doors, and I particularly prefer Open Sesame Door systems. Their automatic door openers are specifically made for people using wheelchairs and those with reduced mobility.

The unit is a little over a foot wide and only requires four screw points to be attached: two at the very top of the door and two where the swing arm is anchored. The unit is not noisy, and it comes in various colors to match the paint on a door, making it less noticeable. It is low voltage and requires little to no maintenance. My wife uses a wheelchair and for the past five years, our door opener has operated reliably every time. The only maintenance ever required was that once I had to tighten the screw on the swing arm. When the door is opened manually, the unit remains off and the door opens freely and swings normally. When engaged, the unit unlatches a locked door, then opens, pauses, and closes it – all automatically. Note: Open Sesame does not lock or unlock your door hardware. Meaning, your regular lock remains locked, and the automatic strike (latch hole) opens to allow the bolt on the lock to swing out. This way the automatic opener can open the door without the use of physical keys or turning a knob. A critical safety feature for Open Sesame Doors is that if the door is closing, and the person or object is still in the doorway and stops its progress, the door will swing back open, pause, and then try to close again. This is important if someone is coming through the door and experiences a problem halfway through, such as the wheelchair getting stuck.

Open Sesame Door Openers have solved many issues related to residential units. However, other automatic door openers have challenging issues that you may want to take into consideration when choosing your door opener, including:

  • Reliability – Many of these units have high failure rates. For example, many do not work well when pushed by a person not using the automated features. Some can be damaged if the person entering the door bumps the door while it is opening. If a person is using a wheelchair, this is going to be a likely occurrence. This can cause grinding in the motor and cause it not to work properly over time. Also, some units are under-powered and cannot properly handle the weight of a door,therefore leading to failure. Other units lack independent power, and in the event of a power outage they can cease working entirely.
  • Installation – Some units only work with specific door frames, resulting in a modification or total replacement of the door and frame in order to use that unit. Most openers require a power source (nearby outlet or power line installed specifically for the door), and some units require higher voltage requiring an electrician to run a special line for the unit to be able to draw enough power to open the door.
  • Noise – Many of these units can be very noisy when functioning. The sound is often described as a loud grinding sound.

Key Takeaways

To recap, here are a few questions to ask yourself when choosing your automatic door opener:

  • Does the unit work on battery or will it fail if the power goes out?
  • Do you have people coming in and out who will not use the opener? Consider one that will swing freely when opened manually and won’t fail over time if people push on it while it’s operating.
  • What is your preference for operating the door? Voice? Motion? The press of a switch mounted somewhere? The use of a fob with a button or that activates the door when in proximity?
  • Is it important to you to have the ability to control the door remotely through an app on your phone? Make sure the opener you’re looking at is compatible with the smart device you plan to use.
  • Is the door likely to get bumped as you’re moving through the doorway? Read reviews to see how the opener you’re interested in stands up to repeated bumps.

Smart Homes and the Power of Voice?

By Kirby Smith

Why are so many people excited about Smart Homes?

By now, you’ve probably seen commercials showing people walking into their homes and saying, “Turn on the lights” or “Play jazz music” and, like magic, the lights turn on and music fills the air. Companies that range from Amazon to Home Depot are advertising a slew of devices such as lights, thermostats, smart door bells and door locks that do the bidding of people just by being verbally commanded.  When several of these devices are connected, the term “Smart Home” is used.  However, very few people understand what it really means.  Like personal cell phones and large screen flat televisions in the past, smart home technology may seem to be a luxury.  But, with the drastic drop in price for these devices, it is slowly becoming popular. 

There is also a realization that these devices could be a boon for individuals with unique needs and challenges.  For a person who has limited mobility, or needs to manage a household with many children, or wants more peace of mind when away from home, these devices can become vitally important.

In Forbes July 5, 2017 Investing Article, we have this:

Recently, Best Buy announced that it is expanding space in 700 of its stores to better showcase Amazon’s Echo and Google Home devices and their interaction with smart home technology. Smart home technology is likely to be a key growth driver for Best Buy in the next few years.

According to Zion Market Research, the global smart home market is likely to grow at a CAGR (compounded annual growth rate) of 14.5% between 2017 and 2022 and reach $53.45 billion by 2022.

It almost seems like this industry has popped up overnight.  However, the industry sprung because of sophisticated consumer products that can dramatically change lives.  An excellent example of this is the evolution of the portable phone, now almost exclusively called smart phones.

10 years ago, we used our phones to…make calls.

Arguably this is one of the fastest electronic technology growth periods in history.  In less than a decade, our notion of normal regarding technology has changed. The idea that a phone just makes calls seems like an old notion nowadays.  Many parents feel worry if their children do not have a cell phone in case of an emergency.

In February 2015, Wired magazine reported:

WITH EACH PASSING season, another wave of mobile devices is released that’s more capable and more powerful than the generation preceding it. We’re at the point where anyone armed with a current model smartphone or tablet is able to handle almost all of their at-home—and even at-work—tasks without needing anything else. We’re living proof: for the last two years, WIRED has been able to cover events like CES almost exclusively using our smartphones(…) For those in many developing countries, a smartphone is their first computer and their only Internet-connected device. According to a February 2014 survey from Pew Research reports, Africans use their cellphones for mobile payments, for getting political, health, and consumer information and, of course, social networking. With pricing reaching an affordable $30 to $50 for some smartphones, people who have never before been able to afford a computing device now own one, and it fits in their pocket.

Our relationship with Tech changed.

Consumers first interface with a computer looked like this back in the early 1980’s:

Text input: We memorized commands and typed on one line.  If you didn’t know the commands, you couldn’t do anything. New words like reboot and operating system started to become common.  However, we only used the computers at work and saw learning them as intimidating drudgery.

Graphical interfaces: 1985 we moved on to pointing at symbols of functions and objects.  Suddenly, we could do multiple things at the same time and more intuitively understand how to use it. We could “see” what we are doing.  More people started using computers and some even started to buy them for home use.

Web Browsers: Starting in 1995, suddenly, we didn’t care what computer we used.  Prices became cheaper and the browser worked the same everywhere.  Who cared about how powerful the computer was if you have the Internet?  New words started to become common, such as…the Internet, dial-up, sites, internet addresses, and “surfing”.  We started to need computers to shop, watch things, do homework, etc.  By 2002, debates about facts end with, “Google it!”

Smart Phones: With the popularity of Blackberries in 2005 and the release of the iPhone in 2007, a phone became a tiny computer and was called “smart”.  We carried our computers in our pockets and forget they are computers.  We start walking into poles on streets as we can’t stop looking at our phones.  We begin controlling the real world with a tiny screen and “Apps”.  The only technical thing we think about is “coverage” and when is the next model coming out.

Voice: Voice is the latest and fastest growing trend.  Starting 2011, some of us tried Siri but ignored her when the smarter sister Alexa appeared in 2014.  If we had keys and groceries in our hands, we could tell Alexa or, later Google, to turn the lights on.  Kids don’t have to open a book when they can ask Alexa for answers.  Most important, those with special needs now have access to an assistant that takes requests like…an assistant.

The iPhone changed everything.

Prior to the smartphone revolution, technology giants focused on business and corporate solutions because they could sell big, expensive tech that would tie companies to them for years. Switching to another vendor was too difficult and expensive.  Sometimes the technology would seep into the household, such as personal computers (PCs) and laptops.  Because we used these products for business, we accepted paying thousands for the technology and companies like Microsoft and IBM grew huge.  Even smartphones were geared to business as Blackberry became famous and it was a status symbol to own one personally.  This all changed with the iPhone and the service behind it called iTunes.  Apple broke the rules.  They released a high-tech GPS enabled device that was in no way geared to business.  They advertised only to consumers and focused on the youth market.  IT departments considered them toys and some banned their companies from using them for corporate purposes.  Blackberry laughed at the iPhone for lacking a keyboard.  Meanwhile, consumers formed lines and suddenly the device was no longer just for geeks.  Apple always focused on how you could use it, not what was in it.  Tech became hip, a status symbol, and a way to buy something that did more than one function.  A person could use it the way they wanted.

Apple also shook up everything when they created the App Store and introduced “Apps”.  The operating system was no longer something you had to understand, learn, and buy every couple of years.  It was a shock to businesses to discover Apple (and similar companies) didn’t even charge for upgrades.  Instead of going to a store, you purchased and downloaded apps and music from an online store.  Consumers loved it, businesses were envious, and the giants from Microsoft to Dell to R.I.M. (Blackberry) watched their business models crumble.  As more people purchased iPhones, then iPads, and Android phones, people began to question why the tech at work was so clunky.  People were no longer willing to go to classes to learn how to use software. People “needed” to be connected and the internet became a tool for every person.  People no longer tracked telecom bills according to calls but by bytes.  Software became less bloated and complicated, turning into apps that solved a specific need.  Almost overnight, the concept of an app stores changed our perception of tech.  We all started to trust in devices that tied to online services handling our information, financial data, and entertainment.  New businesses exploded because they provided powerful computing services that didn’t need your devices computing power.  Computer experts had a term called “The Cloud” which came from drawings where IT guys drew a cloud to indicate a remote network function where “we don’t know how it works but it provides what we need and it’s safe”.  Consumers loved the simplicity of cloud services and we saw the rise of Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Samsung and…Microsoft (reborn).

Government Technology reported on April 2016:

As Intel’s announcement of 12,000 layoffs by mid-2017 starts to sink in, many technology infrastructure analysts are pointing to the news as more evidence that the PC is dead — or on life-support. Global experts are now predicting that smartphones and tablets will increasingly replace desktop and laptop PCs.

Follow the Money.

By 2013, the mobile market had become saturated with competitors.  With competition so high, profit margins dropped for manufacturers.  Technology companies realized that with the focus on mobile, what were people using when stationary.  Other than being at work, people spend most of their time at home.  From the question, how can more technology be sold to consumers, a whole new industry was created, Home Automation, otherwise known as Smart Homes.

While businesses were slower to adopt, people opened their wallets.  The gears of industry followed the money, and now home consumer products are arguable driving the technology industry.  Like before, products are released to regular people, and commercial companies are slowly starting to adopt the technology:

  • From Reuters June 19, 2018 – “ Inc. said on Tuesday that it has partnered with Marriott International, Inc. to help increase guest access to amenities with Alexa, through its voice-controlled device Echo, in an attempt to expand its presence in the hospitality industry.” []
  • From Control4 (A business specializing in business automation) – “As a business owner or facility manager you have enough to worry about without letting the technology of business operations distract you. Control4 can give you competitive advantage by improving operating efficiencies. Set your lighting, music, temperature and video to greet your customers with the perfect welcome. With one button your security system arms, lights go on, temperature adjusts, and all the music and TVs automatically turn on. Keep an eye on things—from anywhere. Whether equipment or lights are left on, or unusual activity is detected, you’ll always be in the know.” []
  • From Brooks Brothers – “At Brooks Brothers, our employees are already successfully using Amazon Chime for productive online meetings. With Alexa for Business, we are now using Alexa to simplify our conference room experience. Alexa takes care of all the details by allowing us to begin meetings with the simple voice command, “Alexa, start the meeting”. Not only does Alexa for Business make it easy for me to provision and manage Echo devices throughout my office, but also configure them to work with Amazon Chime and my existing conference room AV/VC equipment.” – Phillip Miller, Head of Infrastructure and CISO, Brooks Brothers.

Of the popular consumer devices, the Smartphone/tablet has dominated but always had one problem… we still must pick them up.  The services behind smart speakers, Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, are starting to provide the functionality that feels like a natural interaction.  For example, if I wanted to schedule a meeting with John Smith, I can say: “Alexa schedule a meeting with John Smith tomorrow at 3pm.” Alexa will not only enter the event into my calendar, she will send an email invite to John based on his information in my contact list.  On waking in in the morning one can say, “Alexa…I’m getting up.” Alexa will then turn on the bedroom lights, set the temperature to 73 degrees, make an announcement in the kid’s room to start getting ready, turn on the bedroom TV and tune to CNN, turn on the Alexa enabled coffee maker, and finally say “Okay, up and at them!” on the bedroom Echo.

This new A.I./Voice industry is really in its infancy.  Many issues are being worked out, including privacy and security concerns.  However, it promises to grow fast as so many people are enjoying the convenience of using them.  For those with manual/mobile dexterity disabilities or low vision, the devices are a godsend greatly increasing accessibility, independence, and functionality.  Of course, down the road there will be new capabilities and adjustments made to accommodate open work spaces, airplane seats, restaurants, or other public spaces.  We can only imagine where the industry will be in five years if all this has occurred in only three years!

Pitfalls of Caregivers, Technology and Smart Homes

For people who have a disability that severely limits their independence, caregivers serve a very vital role.  A caregiver can be a friend, a relative, or a paid attendant assigned by an agency who attends to the needs of a child or dependent adult.  Attendants may or may not be trained and, if paid, may be full or part time and may even live in the household or sleep over several nights during the week.

The Family Caregiver Alliance states:

“Approximately 43.5 million caregivers have provided unpaid care to an adult or child in the last 12 months. [National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP.]

Approximately 39.8 million caregivers provide care to adults (aged 18+) with a disability or illness or 16.6% of Americans. [Coughlin, J. (2010). Estimating the Impact of Caregiving and Employment on Well-Being: Outcomes & Insights in Health Management.]

About 15.7 million adult family caregivers care for someone who has Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia. [Alzheimer’s Association. (2015). 2015 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures.]

Along with performing household chores, providing transportation, doing the shopping, and performing personal care, many caregivers are also involved in administering injections and medications, as well as other medical treatments.  Providing this care can be stressful and especially, for friends and family, can contribute to depression and serious illness.

If the person receiving care has medical or other equipment, the caregiver’s role is expanded as they learn how to operate, maintain, and even repair the equipment.  With the advent of mobile devices, apps, mobile services (such as mobile banking), web services, and computer accounts, caregivers have been forced to adopt another role…that of tech support.

The Family Caregiver Alliance described the following:

70% of working caregivers suffer work-related difficulties due to their dual roles. Many caregivers feel they have no choice about taking on caregiving responsibilities (49%). This sense of obligation is even higher in caregivers that provide 21 or more hours of care per week (59%) and live-in caregivers (64%). 60% of caregivers in 2015 were employed at one point while also caregiving. [National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP. (2015). Caregiving in the U.S.]

The lower the income and education a person has, the more likely he or she is a caregiver. Similarly, those with a high school education or less (20%) take on a caregiver role versus 15% of college graduates and 16% of postgraduates. [Gallup-Healthways. (2011). Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Survey: More Than One in Six American Workers Also Act as Caregivers.]

In short, caring for a person’s physical well being and health is already difficult enough before adding the challenge of providing technical support with no formal training.

These devices include things such as smart thermostats, cameras, door locks, and doorbells that allows a person to turn the lights off, see outside their house, answer the front door, unlock the door, or even control the television just by using their voice, smart pad, smart phone, or other devices adapted to their disability. Given that these devices are relatively inexpensive, widely available, and easy to use, they are being adopted at a fast pace. A person may not own a smart speaker, but they may recognize an Amazon Echo (with the Alexa voice assistant) or the Google home smart speakers.

Smart phones, tablets, and speakers can allow a person with a disability to perform tasks from their home by using just their voice or text to speech. However, depending on the capabilities of the person, the caregiver may now have to assist a person with their technology.  The caregiver tech support falls into 4 areas: Online Security, Device Networking, Installation and Troubleshooting.  This creates new challenges in the following ways:

  • Online Security:  For those whose disability prevents them from using their hands to write or type, they often must share their passwords to have the caregiver log them into their service or device.
    • Scenario: The caregiver sets up a new smart phone for the person they assist.  The person with the disability is intimidated by the technology, and the caregiver takes it upon themselves to create the new online account (choosing from one of the 4 email accounts belonging to the person with the disability). The caregiver creates the password and does not write it down.  The person with the disability care doesn’t ask for the password to be recorded.  To setup the apps, which may include online banking, email, Amazon account and Comcast, the caregiver was given the login for everything.  Seven months later, the caregiver has a falling out with the family.  The caregiver walks away with complete control and access to the banking, Comcast account, Amazon account (for purchasing) and even the phone account.  A few months later, the person with a disability purchases a new phone and gives their old phone to a friend, who wipes it.  The person tells the new caregiver to setup the new phone for them.  Not understanding how iPhone are linked to an iCloud account, they both discover that they had no access to email accounts, backups (to setup the new phone) or even the banking and credit card accounts.  When the bank and credit card companies are contacted, the care recipient does not know the answer to security challenge questions or logins.
  • Networking: To maintain the connection to the Internet, some people receiving care are dependent on their care givers to ensure that the router in their house is functioning properly. Tasks could include interfacing with the provider (such as Comcast), rebooting the router, checking the connectivity of devices attached to hubs, and ensuring that the devices have not been changed or tampered with in such a way that the smart devices no longer functions.
    • Scenario: The person with the disability receives an Echo (Alexa), four smart light bulbs and a hub to connect the lights.  With smart light bulbs, the power (switch) must always be left on and the bulb can only be turned off using the app or by issuing a voice command.  A nurse comes over during a regular visit, physically switches off the lamp (with the smart light bulb), and unplugs it when using medical equipment.  The night shift caregiver returns after the nurse’s visit.  While in bed, the person with the disability attempts to tell Alexa to turn on the lamp and discovers the light doesn’t work.  The night caregiver does not understand the technology, so she changes the bulb (throwing out the smart bulb), tries to turn on the lamp and finds out it still is not working.  She checks the plug, plugs the lamp in and the light comes on.  Everyone thinks the light is working.  When the person falls asleep the caregiver turns the light off using the switch on the lamp.  As part of her morning routine, the night caregiver takes out the trash and the morning shift caregiver arrives.  When the person with the disability tries to command the light to turn on, it doesn’t work.  They become distraught that the light is not working and, to assist, the caregiver begins changing setting in the app to the point that the other lights no longer work.  Eventually, the original installer must be contracted to fix the system and a new smart bulb must be purchased and setup.
  • Installation: The person receiving care may purchase or receive a new device with no professional or experienced installer to set it up.  They will depend on their caregiver to follow the instructions which can include: unpackaging the device, attaching the device on WiFi (or a hub), creating a cloud account and login for the device, activation of services, setting of specifications and training the person receiving the care how they can use the device. Finally, they must ensure the device is placed where it will perform optimally (for example the Amazon Echo must be placed where it can be seen and is in earshot to hear the commands).
    • Scenario: While the family has a paid caregiver during the morning and afternoon, various family members provide the care at night depending on availability.  As devices are added, each family member uses their own email and login account.  When there is a problem with the system, it is impossible for the paid caregiver to assist and the next day, many calls must be made to figure out the login accounts before the actual problem can be solved.
  • Troubleshooting: A device may fail, someone may unintentionally turn off a device, a device may lose connection to its hub, or the Internet connection may go down.  The caregiver may be called on to test the device and figure out how to reactivate it.  If customer support is contacted on the phone the caregiver may be the person making the call, rebooting the router, communicating what the notifications lights are showing or moving a device to a better position for reception.
    • Scenario: The person with the disability is very comfortable with technology and understands how everything work.  Unfortunately, the person’s wife had the router installed on the second floor. The caregiver is very uncomfortable with technology and English is not their first language.  When Wi-Fi goes down, the person receiving the care makes the call to Verizon.  The technician on the call askes that the router be rebooted and wants to know when certain lights blink.  The caregiver is sent upstairs, and frustration ensues as the caregiver does not understand what he is being asked to do as the care receiver is yelling at him from downstairs.

These scenarios are just some of the situations that can occur when caregivers are asked to provide technical support.  While some are very comfortable doing so, most are finding a job that can already be stressful to be even more complicated.  And while their responsibilities have grown, if they are paid, their pay has not increased.

While it is impossible to prepare for every situation, the following recommendations should be considered if technology is a part of or is going to be introduced into the general environment of a person living with a severe disability.

  • It takes a team: Many people with a disability have their own unique human resources and one cannot generalize the knowledge base of the person (attendant, family member, friend) who is providing assistance.  For example, a young adult who was injured and paralyzed may have his father or an attendant handling the primary care, while the mother focuses on accessing services and the finances (state programs and grants/medical bills/etc.). The older brother is better with technology and takes care of the phone and devices that his brother uses.  In order for a person with a serious disability to live independently, family members, friends, or paid attendant must be willing to take on varying roles to support that person.
    • Someone is managing the personal information – This may be the person with the disability, a family member, a friend or even a paid support person who is trusted.  This person should, if possible, form a plan of how to manage the personal information. Besides information such as a birth certificate, Social Security card, medical records, and other legal/financial information, technology related information should also be managed with equal importance.  Accounts, Login ID’s and other Internet cloud information should be kept in a secured journal (whether it is an online journal such as “Notes” on an iPhone or Windows computer or a spiral notebook). This journal should be backed up every so often, depending on resources.  Sometimes one cannot get around giving a caregiver their login information if the ability to enter it personally is not possible.  However, keeping control of this information will make it easier to protect, fix or adjust a data breach.  If the caregiver is trusted the information can be written on a paper and tacked to a wall so that another caregiver can quickly access the information.  Also, schedule regular dates to access apps and devices and the accounts being used.  Often people are excited about new services or devices and fly through creating the accounts.  Later, when asked what password is used, no one remembers, and the service can end up being locked, unusable and lost.
    • Someone handled the procurement – In the case of durable medical equipment, smart-home/home automation, a new cell phone or tablet, Internet service or other technology, someone handled the selection and purchase.  In the same journal/information sheet mentioned before, the name and contact info. of the primary purchaser along with the name and contact number of the services should be kept together.  Everyone providing care, including the person with the disability should know how to contact customer/technical support for all the technology.  If possible, a family member or friend should more actively take control of being the main technical support person who understands at least some of how everything works. That same person should be present when new technology is introduced.  Many young people, since they are growing up with these technologies, are a great resource to use.
    • When the caregiver is being paid – It is highly likely a paid caregiver will, at some point, move on.  Further, unless technical support was part of their job description, it is not fair or prudent to rely on them technically, to the point where the person receiving care has their lifestyle, online security, independence or tools imperiled by the loss of an employee. Smart home devices can have a dramatic impact on the life on someone who want to maintain independence.  This technology can be a vital part of a person’s life and must be guarded and wisely supported.

Webinar: Smart Homes Made Simple

This presentation focuses on defining and learning about “smart home” technology and how these devices can be integrated into home and work environments to enhance independence, safety and quality of life. Funding resources for the acquisition of smart home devices are also discussed.


  • Learn about the wide array of affordable technology
  • Discover how widely available technology can support individuals with disabilities
  • Identify ways that Smart Home technology can help in transition


Kirby Smith, founder and President of SunKirb Ideas, LLC. In July of 2014, his wife, Suria, was injured and became a quadriplegic. He found the technology being offered to improve her life was outdated, expensive, and very limited due to customizations. Suddenly, simple everyday things were challenging. They solved those issues and July 2015 formed a company to bring these solutions to an underserved population. SunKirb Ideas, LLC offers affordable off-the-shelf consumer based solutions through technology to give those with disabilities and unique challenges the ability to be more independent and have more control of their environment. This enabled people to control the lights, temperature, turn on and off alarms, control their doors, control music and entertainment, see and communicate remotely, and control the televisions (including the cable box, TiVo, Netflix and Hulu) using voice commands.

Susan Tachau, co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of the non-profit, Pennsylvania Assistive Technology Foundation (PATF), Pennsylvania’s Alternative Financing Program as designated by the federal Assistive Technology Act. PATF is also a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI). PATF helps individuals with disabilities and seniors acquire the assistive technology – including smart home devices – they want in order to live a more independent and satisfying life. PATF has helped more than 3,300 individuals with disabilities and older Pennsylvanians finance assistive technology with loans worth more than $37 million.

Beyond Step Counters: Smart Tech for your Health

shutterstock_253752736 (1)

Imagine using your smart phone to take an EKG (echocardiogram) in seconds and having that information instantly sent to your doctor to track your cardiac conditions. Sounds futuristic, right? That future is happening right now.

Smart technology for your health, also called health tech, is evolving at a rapid pace. The healthcare industry and tech industry are merging ideas to design wearable devices, mobile devices and apps that can help manage your health. These devices can assist with self-care, preventative care, aid caregivers by monitoring loved ones and also enable doctors to diagnose their patients quickly.

The possibilities are seemingly endless. Health-tech devices, apps and
wearables can measure and track vital signs, glucose and insulin levels, heart conditions, asthma, allergies, skin conditions, UV exposure, contractions during pregnancy, sleep patterns, and even tremors in Parkinson’s disease.

Sportsman with Artifitial Leg Sitting on Stadium

Self Care

There are many ways your phone can help you care for yourself. If you are feeling blue, there are mood elevating apps, and even apps where you can speak to a therapist. To care for your mind and body, there are meditation apps, brainteaser apps, fitness tracker and weight loss apps. Here are some examples of self-care apps.

For patients that have difficulty leaving home, there are mobile apps that can directly connect you by video to a board certified doctor. There is even an app to help locate a local restaurant nearby that serves meals to meet your specific dietary needs! food allergy apps

Helping Caregivers

Devices can lend a hand to caregivers by remotely notifying them if a loved one forgets to take their medicine pill drill. Also, wearable devices with GPS capability can help caregivers track a loved one’s safety in case of a fall or wandering away from home watchu.

Timing can be Everything

Health data can be collected in real-time through wearables to track activity levels for patients recovering from an illness or to show if a new treatment plan is effective. Doctors can use medical apps to quickly and effectively share test results and images with other specialists to better treat a patient. In some cases, this information can be captured through the device and sent to the doctor electronically without requiring the patient to come into the office.

Preventative Care

Corporations are starting to use smart-tech wellness programs to promote and support healthy lifestyles of their employees, sometimes offering cash incentives to stay on track.  Perhaps this will lead to lower healthcare costs in the future.

For more information, here are some articles with the latest health-tech trends:

How Smart Home Technology fits in with Aging in Place

Living where you want to live can be the difference between feeling vulnerable or feeling safe; feeling isolated or feeling part of a community. As Jane Austen once wrote, “There is nothing like staying at home for real comfort.” Aging in place is defined by the Centers for Disease Control as “the ability to live in one’s own home and community safely, independently, and comfortably, regardless of age, income, or ability level.” Most people prefer to do so for as long as possible. But, loneliness, isolation and safety concerns are common experiences for older adults, especially those living alone. Smart home technology—devices that let you communicate with others, provide information and entertainment, and let you control your lighting, thermostat, or even your Crock-Pot using your voice or smartphone—is a rapidly growing industry seeing increasing introduction to homes. Generic smart home technology can increase independence for people of all ages, specifically those aging in place. In fact, the two are so compatible, that the trend toward aging in place may be one of the biggest catalysts of some of this technology.
Devices such as smart locks, door openers and cameras can all serve as simple solutions to increase home accessibility and security, and to take visitability to the next level. Regarding aging in place, visitability is an important growing design approach for new homes, with the main principle that a resident or non-resident with mobility difficulties, who perhaps uses a wheelchair or other mobility device, should be able to visit or live in the home. While the base requirements for visitability are widened doorways and hallways, 0-step entry, and a half bath on the first floor, there is even more than can be done to make hosting easier for the resident. For example, an older adult with mobility issues may have a difficult time making it to their front door quickly after they hear their doorbell or a knock. With an automated door opener, they can unlock and open their door from anywhere in the house using a smart device and/or voice command.
Various devices with cameras can increase an older adult’s safety when located both inside and outside of their home. Smart doorbells on the exterior of the home, such as Ring, allow you to see who is at your door without having to physically go to the door, which can be especially helpful when mobility is limited. Amazon Echo Showallows for video calls with family that are as simple as saying the words, “Alexa, call my grandkids.” In-home cameras, like those available through Nest, can ensure your loved one is being well-cared for by in-home care providers and that they are safe inside their home when no one is with them. However, it is important to note that there is a fine line to balance between respecting your loved one’s privacy and being able to see at-will into your loved one’s home. Cameras can cause privacy concerns and warrant a discussion with the elder adult before installation. Review the implications of adding cameras inside, and make sure the individual understands and has given permission.
Falls are always a major safety concern associated with aging, especially for those living alone. Smart home technology includes the ability to use one’s voice to also turn lights on and off. Being able to turn a light on with your voice can eliminate the need to walk to the switch in the dark if it is not nearby, ultimately helping to prevent falls by having a well-lit room before moving about. Smart hallway lights with motion sensors turn on when the individual gets up to use the bathroom in the night. If someone does fall and cannot get back up, they can call for help using a smart automated assistant such as Amazon Alexa, Google assistant or Apple Siri. Once someone arrives, the person needing help can use their voice to open the door and let the person in to assist them.
Smart home technology also allows for many types of automation that, after set-up, take little or no effort on the part of the resident. For instance, wearable fall sensors automatically send an alert to a loved one’s smartphone when they detect that the user has fallen. Door sensors can send alerts when the older adult leaves the home, in case there are concerns for wandering. Smart lights can be programmed to turn on in the front hall and on the porch when the resident pulls in the driveway with their smartphone.
For older adults becoming forgetful, there are smart home devices that can provide reminders. Smart appliances can track items in the refrigerator, pantry and pill cabinet when there are concerns about the older adult not eating enough and/or forgetting to take medications. These appliances provide notification and warnings depending on conditions they are set to monitor, such as using the sending an alert to a smartphone if pills are not taken on schedule (see PillDrill for an example). In addition, if an older adult has someone shop for them, they can tell the automated assistant in a smart device to add items to their shopping list via voice command, and the shared list will be instantly updated in the shared app.
Smart home technology can be intimidating, and change can be uncomfortable. Older adults grew up with less technology than today’s youth and often feel apprehensive, lacking confidence when using automated devices. However, with the growing market of smart home technology that is activated by a simple voice command or set up to be completely automated, older adults are being asked to step less out of their comfort zone in order to reap the benefits. Once someone gets comfortable speaking to a device, there is little training and few changes necessary to the person’s habits and lifestyle. There are also friendly instructive videos and apps to support those less comfortable with technology as they increase their tech confidence and savvy. Ultimately, generic smart home devices are costing less and less, and are becoming more and more user-friendly. For those aging in place, these devices help them improve their independence and quality of life, no matter their age or ability.
Want to learn more about aging in place with technology? Check out the Aging in Place Technology Watch blog.And, of course, you can learn more about smart home technology and how it’s being used as assistive technology for both older adults as well as people with disabilities at our website:

Interested in smart home technology but not sure how you can afford it? Give us a call. We have extensive experience with available funding resources and can help you find what you need and afford it, too.


Will Alexa Understand Him?

proloquo and echo

It’s first thing in the morning and Kyle just woke up. He enters the kitchen and walks towards the Echo Show. He selects a pre-programmed question from his phone. “Echo, did the Phillies win last night?” Echo replies, and Kyle is pleased.

If you thought Alexa or Google Home devices couldn’t work with alternative communicators, you are mistaken! This was me. As a mom always looking for ways to help her son maximize his independence, I thought anything that requires voice activation would only cause him frustration. I was dismissing intelligent personal assistant devices because of my son’s limited verbal communication skills. What I am discovering is with a little creativity, it’s not only possible, but also empowering.

My son Kyle is 19 years old and a typical teen in so many ways. He loves sports, music, friends, his dogs, and is never without his iPhone. He uses many ways to communicate, including pictures on his phone, informal gestures, some ASL sign language and some limited verbal speech. We have always encouraged a total communication approach or any alternative way to help him get his point across, including AAC.  I didn’t know if an intelligent personal assistant would be able to understand him, but I wanted to try.

Since Kyle is a visual learner, we chose the Echo Show over the other products on the market . Not only can he hear Echo’s answers, but a visual appears on the screen, like the weather report or Phillies score.

At first, Kyle was curious and watched us talk to Echo, but wasn’t confident to try it himself.  We used “Echo” as our wake up word instead of Alexa, Amazon or computer because Echo was the easiest for Kyle to verbally say. On our first attempt with the Echo, I tried to ask for a reminder to drop off my son’s Toyota at the service station for inspection. This seemed simple enough. Echo repeated to me, “Ok, you have a reminder for 3pm to drop off the toilet!” Toilet?? (Clearly, there is going to be a learning curve here!) I explained to Kyle that Echo was having trouble understanding me. I think watching my failed attempt gave Kyle permission to try it himself; he had nothing to lose. He tried it. “Echo, drop off Toy…Toyota”. With Kyle’s slight speech stutter, Echo interpreted, “OK, drop off the torah torah”. This wasn’t right either. I was ready to give up, thinking this is only going to cause frustration. I mentioned this experience at Kyle’s SETT meeting at school to our Assistive Technology Consultant and she suggested getting Kyle’s communication app to talk to Echo.

Kyle uses the Proloquo2go picture-based communication app on his iPhone. We set up a simple grid in Proloquo2go with some of Kyle’s favorite things. With this accommodation, Kyle can use his phone to ask Echo to play music, stop the music, and tell us the weather in our area and the places his dad travels to work. Kyle can also ask if the Phillies or Sixers won their games last night. We can set up reminders like what time to leave for school or work, or even not forgetting to brush his teeth! Smart home technology and intelligent personal assistants are becoming a valuable resource to help anyone gain independence. Limitations in verbal communication skills do not need to be a barrier.

During my search for the best approach for Kyle, I came across some other helpful tools. Check out these links as well as our Smart Homes Made Simple Resources.

Think Smart Box– a pre-programmed communication grid that works with Alexa

Ask My Buddy– a free service that allows users to have Alexa or Google Home contact their personal alert network of friends, family or personal care professional

Alexa things to try– useful phrases to help you get started with Alexa

Alexa drop in feature– allows you to connect with friends and family, even if you aren’t in the room

Smart Home Tech with Your Smart Phone

two women, one using a power wheelchair and fish tank.

When you visit Alexa Brill’s house, you enter a cheerfully colorful home that is filled with smart home technology. Alexa lives in Camp Hill, PA along with her loyal pup Chloe, and her fish. She is a graduate of Edinboro University in Erie, PA and is currently working for The ARC of Pennsylvania as Social Media and Website Manager. Like many of us these days, Alexa can’t live without her smart phone. With her phone, Alexa has access to many household items that maximizes her independence. Alexa has tried many types of smartphones and the one that works best for her is an Android Samsung smartphone. Through Bluetooth connectivity, Alexa can use her joystick to control Samsung’s assistant menu accessibility features to point with an arrow cursor and click on which feature she wishes to activate. Alexa samsung phone pic

Alexa has been a power wheelchair user for most of her life. When she decided to move to her own home, Alexa’s family helped her find the best smart home products so that she could control everyday household items right from her wheelchair.

As you approach Alexa’s front door you’ll notice the barrier-free entranceway with a fully automatic door lock and opener manufactured by Schlage. This door lock is Bluetooth compatible and connects to Alexa’s phone. Alexa can lock, unlock and open the door giving her complete control of who enters her home. Also thanks to Bluetooth, she has control of her TV, computer, light switches by Lutron, window blinds and thermostat. The solid flooring throughout her home make is possible for her to maneuver easily.

Watch this video of Alexa demonstrating her smart home technology.

Living independently is important to Alexa. These smart home features make it possible for her. She received funding through PA’s Home & Community Based Waiver for the accessibility adaptations to her home, and from the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR) for adaptations to her vehicle. Alexa and her family (who live nearby) are always researching the latest technology and devices (even if they have to make it themselves). Next on her list is to check out Amazon Echo devices to see what else is possible!