Voice search technology and listening devices have come a long way in the past several years. Users of Google Home, Amazon Echo and other voice assistants surely enjoy a world of convenience.
But is the ability to simply ask for the news to appear on your screen, play a song you’re in the mood to listen to, or maybe turn off the lights without having to leave their chair just that – a simple convenience? Many advocates have already voiced their concerns over eroding privacy policies. The fact is that these microphones are constantly listening to you, recording and saving every single word you utter.
If you’re fine with Amazon and Google logging your regular activity on the web, you probably won’t get worried. But a lot of people, especially those that cover their laptop cameras because they worry they are being watched, surely will.
How do listening devices, voice assistants work?
When you request something using your voice, Google Home and Amazon’s Alexa stream or record clips of what you speak, and then send the files to a server which processes the audio and comes up with a proper response. This is a default enabled process, and the recorded audio is connected to your account. Because of the fact that the servers are located far away from you, these devices logically require an internet connection to function.
They only respond to their own “wake words”, such as “OK Google” and “Alexa”. Once you say these words, the devices start recording your request and then send it to the server. This should mean that, even though they are always listening to you, they don’t record what you speak until you say the right words. The same as with every other privacy issue, can you really be sure of this?
Is this secure from hackers?
The frightening fact is that it is possible that hackers get access to these devices. Still, that doesn’t mean that Google and Amazon don’t have their own security measures that do their best to make sure that there’s no one interfering with your voice assistant systems. The audio that is sent from your home to Google and Amazon is encrypted, so even if your home network is under attack, there is really a slim chance that the devices can be used to listen to you.
You can also apply some simple security measures such as using the mute button they both have. What you need to worry about more is someone obtaining your Google or Amazon password and being able to view the logs of all your interactions.
What happens to your recorded audio clips?
Both Google Home and Amazon Echo make it possible for you to revisit your old queries. With Alexa, you can simply open your app and go to Settings > History. If you are using multiple Alexa devices, each one has its own list of requests that you can listen to. When it comes to Google, you can log into your account and view your requests on myactivity.google.com. Google’s library of queries contains more than just voice clips – you can find all your Google searches, YouTube videos, and Android apps that you have used there.
Both Google and Amazon say that the databases of all the audio files help them create personalized content that they can serve to you. They also make use of the recorded data for cases when they can’t “tell” you what you need, but rather give you links to textual content via their apps.
Questions begin to pile up when you start thinking about what control you have over the data that is being stored on their servers. While you have some control, such as having an option to disable recording in Google Home, and delete all the audio clip logs for both devices, you still cannot be sure what happens to the data and whether it’s really gone.
For example, it is known that both Amazon and Google use all the gathered queries to “teach” their A.I. about natural speech patterns. The idea is to make your home systems smarter in the future, but is this really all?
How to stop and delete your voice recordings?
There are both software and hardware ways to stop Google Home’s mic from listening to you. The simplest way is to just use the mute button located at the back of the device. Logically, once you do this, your voice queries won’t be heard or recorded. There is no way as of yet to use an “incognito mode” so that your queries aren’t recorded.
You can also disable audio recording and logging by going to myactivity.google.com, but that basically renders your system useless. What you can do is go to the “My Activity” bar, choose “Delete activity by”, then go to “All Products” drop-down menu, pick “Voice & Audio” and just delete everything.
Amazon Echo doesn’t enable you to stop recording, but it comes with a mute button just like Home. The Alexa app has the option to delete your recordings, but the catch is that it allows you to do that only with one search entry at a time. To delete more of them at once, you need to go to amazon.com/myx, click the “Your Devices tab, choose your Alexa device, and then go to “Manage voice recordings”. You’ll be offered a “Delete” option to remove all the saved clips.
As I write this article, news of latest documents released by Wikileaks emerge, accusing CIA of being able to access just about any device they want, including iPhones, Android phones, Smart TVs, gaming consoles and personal computers. After this realization a big question arises. Can you really hide from technology, even if you try to be careful and follow the tips I described here or will your efforts merely fall flat?
The documents also point out the CIA’s ability to cover their tracks if they want to hack a device and leave a ‘trace’ leading to whatever source they want to point their finger to. This revelation comes at a critical time for the US-Russian relations, adding a new dimension to the alleged Russian DNC hacking and meddling in the US elections.
Smartphones and devices like Google Home and Amazon Echo are the future, but the question remains how much this future resembles Orwell’s “1984”. All companies claim they use your data only to improve their systems, but no one can really tell you what happens with it (except maybe Wikileaks). With this latest Wikileaks release, anyone with the slightest concern for their privacy can’t help but wonder – is there even a possibility to enjoy all the benefits of today’s technology without having to sacrifice a good portion of your privacy?
So, ultimately you are offered a choice – pay the price and give away your privacy for a world of convenience with all the gadgets to entertain you, or ditch every last piece of ‘smart’ technology and reserve what little anonymity you have left.