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Smart Speaker Eavesdropping

Smart Speaker Eavesdropping

Perhaps you have one of those Alexa or Google Home devices (or are considering one). Ever wonder how it becomes active when you speak the “magic words” such as “Alexa?” Obviously, it is listening in order to know when you ask it something. These devices are just part of the connected Internet of Things (IoT) we encounter more and more in our daily lives. But, you do realize these smart speakers are eavesdropping all the time?

Smart speaker listening in the background (behind a house plant)
Smart speakers always seem to be listening

Sure, you can “opt out” of this listening. But you have to take an active role to do so. In some states, legislation is being considered to require companies (such as Amazon and Google) to obtain explicit consent from customers before those voice queries are recorded and stored.

Illinois has proposed legislation

In Illinois (where Web Professionals is headquartered), our State Senate passed the Keep Internet Devices Safe Act in the Senate on April 10. The measure is now before the Rules Committee in the Illinois House. In a nutshell, this legislation (if it becomes law) directs that the user must first agree (in writing) to specified criteria. The exact wording – “Provides that no private entity may turn on or enable, cause to be turned on or enabled, or otherwise use a digital device’s microphone to listen for or collect information, including spoken words or other audible or inaudible sounds, unless a user first agrees to a written policy meeting specified criteria.”

California has proposed legislation

In California similar legislation was proposed earlier this year (February 22). This is also making its way through the legislative process. This proposal also bans smart speaker vendors from sharing this information with third parties without consumer consent (opt-in).

Does eavesdropping matter?

Is this a “big deal?” Bloomberg reported that thousands of Amazon employees listen to Alexa recordings. Of course, this is to help the technology better understand what we are speaking. However, employees (or contractors) may also overhear potentially criminal activity or words the speaker may prefer remain private. As we learned from the Bloomberg article linked above, some words (such as French “avec sa”) may be interpreted as “alexa” by the listening device. Personally, I have observed words emanating from my television causing the lighted ring on my Alexa device to indicate it is listening (and it often tries to respond appropriately).

We support these initiatives

As many readers are aware, legislation continually plays “catch up” with technology. The smart speaker example is the latest of these issues. Obviously, legislators in Illinois and California are paying attention. In the broader scheme of things, we at Web Professionals believe privacy matters. We support these legislative initiatives.

If you would like to learn more (especially about the California initiative, PC Mag has a great overview article. We are curious about your thoughts on these initiatives. As always, we look forward to your comments.

Is the bar too high for beginners?

Is the bar too high for beginners?

Personally, I have been working with web technologies for almost 3 decades (started in 1992 – yep, 27 years at this point). It was quite easy to view the source code on a web page to learn how the author had developed the page. It was easy to build a solid foundation regarding these technologies. Of course, when I first started, CSS and JavaScript did not yet exist. Fast forward to 2019. Now we have JavaScript frameworks (minified, of course), CSS pre-processors, and much more. View the source code on most sites and you will not be able to fully understand what the author has done in constructing the site.

Question - are we making it too difficult on top of a screen capture of minified code

Barriers to Entry

At one point, individuals could learn the fundamentals and enhance their knowledge as they worked through code snippets. It seems that many today are relying on frameworks for simple tasks. I first asked this question a few years ago in my article – Are we relying too much on JavaScript? Since 2016, it appears these issues have only grown. Of course, many professionals have specialized (as they must). Whether the discipline is UX, or UI, or server side development, it is still important to have a solid understanding of how all the pieces relate. Sure, one can take classes; but many at various institutions seem to cover out of date materials. This seems to force students to learn on their own. We see the results every year with some individuals participating in our national web competition. It seems that many have decided to focus on a specialty or framework from the start. Rather than developing a solid understanding of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, it seems many focus on learning a few frameworks with the intent of then landing a job as a developer. Time and again, I see social media posts demonstrating a lack of understanding of CSS fundamentals (such as float or the box model). Likewise, I have seen instances where a large amount of JavaScript code is developed where a simple paragraph tag would suffice. It seems that many are now focused on learning a subset instead of developing a solid foundation and then branching out. Perhaps this is because there seems to be so much complexity in web sites these days?

Content management systems

I have also seen the rise of content management systems (such as WordPress which now accounts for roughly 30% of new websites). I listen in various meetings where individuals speak of a language (such as React) when they mean framework. I also hear many conversations demonstrating a lack of knowledge of the fundamentals of CSS (and the proper separation of presentation from content). I also see many sites where there is no consideration for accessibility (or it seems an after thought). Certainly, Content Management Systems make it much easier to get your content online. However, I believe one should still have a solid foundational understanding of the technologies involved.  There may well come a time when a minor change is needed to make a page display as one intends. Without an overall foundational knowledge, this may be nearly impossible to achieve.

Return to the basics

Personally, I believe it is time we return to the basics. This message is particularly directed at those who teach web technologies. It is important to keep up with trends, but it is also important to make certain aspiring web professionals are grounded with a solid foundation of how to build web pages (with a good understanding of semantic markup [and why it is important], CSS, and vanilla JavaScript). Only after they have a solid foundation should they specialize (and learn frameworks).

I am stepping off my soapbox now. I am curious as to your thoughts? Are we neglecting the fundamentals and not providing a solid foundation for students? I look forward to your comments.

Best always,
Mark DuBois
Executive Director and Community Evangelist

Membership – pay it forward

Membership – pay it forward

If you are a practicing web professional, I have a simple question for you. What are you doing to help the next generation of web professionals? We are a member supported organization and we do our best to help aspiring web professionals learn what matters in our industry. We do this through our School Of Web initiative, our Web Professional Academies and Education Alliances and through our annual web design and development competitions. Your membership matters a great deal.

We will hold our 17th annual national web competition in Louisville in June (as one example). Of course, all of this is made possible by member support. People just like you!

Are you a member of Web Professionals? Your membership matters.

Our web competitions promote best practices

We often hear that there is a skills shortage and employers simply can not find enough individuals with the knowledge and skills to meet their needs. As an organization for aspiring and practicing web professionals, we like to think we are making a difference, particularly by promoting industry best practices at our competitions.

If you have been thinking about joining us, now is the time. We are about to start another round of competitions. You can also help us with competition judging. You do not need to be physically present (all materials are available on a secure server).

Of course, you receive many other benefits (such as a free class at our School of Web, access to curated resources on many aspects of web technologies,  and access to a community of like minded professionals using Slack).

Now is your time to pay it forward

When others ask you what have you done to help the next generation, you should be able to say that you “paid it forward” as an active member of Web Professionals. Your membership matters.

Best always,
Mark DuBois
Executive Director and Community Evangelist

Our certification process

Our certification process

Recently, I was asked to document how we develop our certification exams. I thought it might be helpful for visitors to this blog to better understand the process as well. We always try to keep our certifications in line with what is happening in the industry. We offer a number of certifications (ranging from novice to professional levels) in web design, web development, mobile and app development and a number of related areas.

Individual at work with the word cwertification highlighted


We have been offering our certifications for roughly two decades. Obviously, our processes have changed over that time. For example, when I served as Director of Education, we met in Las Vegas (in person) for several days to identify specific areas of focus in our certifications. Nowadays, we hold most of our discussions via email and teleconferences. Here is a bit about our internal process. Frankly, I have personally been involved with many certification efforts over my many years of experience in this field. I have worked closely with companies such as Adobe and Microsoft. Given what I have observed, I can attest that our certifications are comparable and follow roughly the same set of processes. Of course, there is one key difference – our certifications are vendor neutral.

Anyone working in this field understands that technology changes rapidly (and this churn means we need to keep our certifications up to date). This is why those who have earned a certificate from us need to have it renewed every two years.

Our process

Essentially, the process involves periodic review of the current domains and subdomains we cover by individuals in business, industry, and education. We also use this information to keep other initiatives (such as our national web design competition) up to date. Once we have identified that changes need to be made, we have individuals with significant experience in writing questions develop appropriate questions (which include distractors and other features to help confirm individuals really understand the technology). These questions are then reviewed/ revised and eventually end up in question pools. We pull questions from these pools when an individual takes an exam. Obviously, different questions are developed for novice and beginning certifications and for professional certifications. As an aside, we also ask anyone taking a professional level certification to provide documentation they have worked in the industry for at least two years.

We believe it is important that individuals who work in our field consider holding a professional level certification. We believe it is also important those aspiring to work in our industry hold entry level certifications. This is confirmation you have a base level of knowledge and skills for our industry. Of course, we also believe individuals in our industry should be part of a professional organization and collaborate with others. We also ask members to sign a code of ethics. We even include a link to agree to our code of ethics for non- members [it is posted near the bottom of our home page.] It is only through our combined efforts we raise the bar of professionalism in our industry.

Become involved

If you would like to be part of the group which periodically reviews our domains and subdomains, please leave a comment below. By providing your email address, we will know how to contact you. We encourage you to consider helping us (and our industry) by providing your insights periodically as to what matters in today’s rapidly changing field.

I look forward to your comments (and hope you consider assisting us and providing your insights into our process).

Best always,
Mark DuBois
Executive Director and Community Evangelist