An Edmonton tech company creates a kill switch for your smart speaker.
By Steven Sandor | July 12, 2021
Do you worry that, when you leave your laptop open, that someone, somewhere, is watching you through the camera lens? Do you make sure never to fill out any of those online quizzes that identify what your stripper name would be based on your birthday and middle name? Do you worry that when you say, “Hey, Alexa,” someone other than Alexa is listening?
Thomas Stachura is worried about privacy as well. And it was when he was at the home of family members, seeing how they inter-acted with their online smart speaker, he got to thinking — who is listening? Are they listening when you don’t think they’re listening? And, is there a way to make sure the speaker is off?
So, he came up with an idea — a device that mutes the speaker on voice command. And, it’s not-so-ironically named, Paranoid.
“There are a lot of people who have given up on privacy — they don’t care, they just want the tech,” says Stachura. “But then there’s another group that’s holding out and saying, ‘I want my privacy.’ And it’s so painful for them to try and hold on. Who is not going to walk around with a phone? Who is going to turn it off every time they’re not using it? Who is going to unplug their smart speakers? It’s not going to happen.”
There are three versions of the technology, which is made by Pleasant Solutions, the Edmonton-based company Stachura founded 13 years ago with partner Patrick Earl. Two are small devices which attach to smart-home speakers. The third is a device which is hardwired into the speaker. But they all work on the same principle. When you say “paranoid” (do it in your best Ozzy Osbourne voice, we dare you), the smart speaker is live, but after a few minutes, the device mutes itself.
Stachura understands that there are those who will say “to heck with it” and go ahead using their devices without taking any privacy precautions outside of pass-words. But, he points to a 2019 Bloomberg report that indicated Amazon employees listened in on customers and recorded mundane conversations, singing in the shower and even an assault.
“We are blocking them from recording, whether they like it or not,” says Stachura. “Our device has no connection to the internet. No Wi-Fi, no Bluetooth, nothing.” So, that means there is no way for the Paranoid device to record its customers, either.
Paranoid has spun off from Pleasant Solutions, which quietly has become a tech giant in Edmonton. It has nearly 100 employees, plans to hire more, and has several departments. It builds enterprise software, and is involved in password management, with clients including several American federal government agencies and the Royal Family. It also has created Webifier, tech which allows neophytes to code like pros — all the users have to do is create spreadsheets of what they want the software to do, and the technology bridges the gaps.
But Paranoid is the most ambitious project yet.
First, a video was released that hinted at what the technology could do, with a grey-faced alien-like creature representing those who might want to listen in on a family’s private conversations. The video had two purposes: to introduce the Paranoid concept, and see if there would be a market for the idea.
“We had a huge response to the presale,” says Stachura. “We had hundreds of thousands of views of the advertisement. And when we shut it down, we validated what we needed to know, that there’s absolutely a market for this.”
A year after the video came out, Paranoid became a hot topic on Reddit. So, when the first batch of devices were ready, they were quickly snapped up. But, Stachura is hesitant to provide actual sales numbers.
“We tend to be closed off as a company — after all, we’re called Paranoid. Imagine our mindset.”
The company is working on a new batch of devices, but delays on goods from China, the global microchip short-age and global shipping issues have slowed progress.
But, Stachura thinks it’s time more Albertans hear about a company that’s been around, and serving clients around the globe, for more than a decade.
“From an Alberta technology standpoint — although our start-up atmosphere is starting to gain some traction — we’re still pretty immature. But there are some tech companies, like ourselves, that have been around. Tech companies do exist in Alberta, and we’re one of those hidden gems.”