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Could Your Smart Speaker Be Spying on You?

Posted on 10/11/19 by John R. Quain

close up view of a man holding his fingers up to his ear in the universal gesture of listening

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En español | You're not being paranoid if everyone is out to get you or if someone is eavesdropping on all your private conversations.

In fact, during the past year it has come to light that those smart voice assistants with friendly names like Alexa and Siri have been spying on their human owners.

So do you have something to worry about? More important, what can you do to protect yourself?

If you're using Amazon's Alexa, Apple's Siri or Google's Assistant, the services are always listening to you and your family. The voice assistants have to in order to respond to a trigger word — “Alexa!” — when you're looking for answers or want something done.

And, yes, they do record what you say and usually keep those recordings.

Ostensibly, these smart speakers with built-in smart microphones do not have nefarious intentions.

They are listening only so they can get better at doing your bidding, and the past recordings of your dulcet tones help improve their accuracy in understanding what you're saying. The recordings can be used to train the systems’ voice recognition to better anticipate context, even tell the difference between your questions and your partner's commands.

At least that's what the companies claim.

Your information, stored in the cloud

The problem is those recordings are stored in the cloud, with information — what you listen to, where you go, what news you tune in — that might be shared with other companies. Furthermore, personal, very personal, audio recordings of people's very private habits have been shared not with impersonal computer algorithms but with live human operators.

The human listeners were hired to make transcripts of the recordings to assess and help improve the programs’ accuracy. Some of those human listeners are the ones who spilled the beans on Alexa and Google Assistant.

Once the revelation became public, Apple and Google said they would temporarily suspend their human listening programs. Amazon decided to let users opt out of the human reviews.

The issue is definitely serious. It's not just about targeted advertising.

Companies use such information, accurate or not, to determine how much you pay for insurance, what rate you'll get on a home mortgage or whether you'll get a job. So protecting your digital privacy is reasonable.

Here's how to do it without giving up the convenience of a smart speaker.

Warning: Some of the steps take patience.

How to turn off your smart speakers

A quick solution is simply to turn the microphone on these smart speakers off.

Stop Alexa from listening in

You can stop sending recordings to Amazon Alexa using these steps.

1. Open the Amazon Alexa app on your smartphone and go to the menu on the top left corner of the screen.

2. Choose Settings | Alexa Account | Alexa Privacy. If you're asked to sign in to your account, go ahead.

3. Once you've signed in, go to Manage Your Alexa Data.

4. Then under Manage your voice recordings, turn on Automatically delete recordings.

5. You can then choose Keep my recordings for 3 months, and it will delete anything older automatically.

6. From the Manage your voice recordings page, you can scroll down to turn off Use Voice Recordings to Improve Amazon Services.

7. Also turn off the toggle next to your name under Use Messages to Improve Transcriptions.

• Amazon Echo. Press the microphone button. The top will glow red when it's off. Pressing it again will activate listening mode again.

• Apple HomePod. Say, “Hey, Siri, stop listening.” To turn it back on, you have to tap the center of the HomePod on top and say, “Hey, Siri, start listening."

• Google Home. Look for the microphone button. The Mini's switch is near its power cord; the regular and Max models have buttons at the back.

How to delete past recordings

• Amazon Echo. In the Alexa smartphone app, go to the menu and select Settings | Alexa Account | Alexa Privacy | Review Voice History.

Then choose the date range and delete your recordings for today or the entire history

Alternatively, you can say to Amazon's device, “Alexa, delete everything I said today."

• Apple HomePod. Now, the only way to delete Siri's recordings of the past is to delete all of your account information, which I don't recommend.

• Google Home. In the Google Home smartphone app, select the Account icon in the lower right corner of the screen and then choose My Activity.

Then you can delete Google Assistant's recordings individually or in groups. Better, you can set it to regularly delete such files by going to the My Activity page and select Choose to delete automatically.

All of the companies continually update their programs, so some of these settings may change in the future. In each of these cases, the companies will try to dissuade you from deleting recordings or opting out of the monitoring. They claim that disabling the recordings and clearing out your recordings on a regular basis will reduce the accuracy of the voice assistants in understanding what you are saying.

However, with continual testing I've found it doesn't make much of a difference. The programs are not that sophisticated yet, so don't be afraid to delete recordings.

Still, manually deleting recordings, like clearing the cache in your computer's web browser, can be an onerous task. Of course, you can always ask your smart speaker, “Alexa, remind me to clear my recordings every Wednesday at noon.”

Problem solved.

John R. Quain is a contributor to the New York Times and editor-in-chief of OntheRoad.

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