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Reader Questions: Are voice-activated devices listening on my private conversations?

devices listening: google home

In our new Reader Questions series, we want to hear from you! If you have a question, send it to us here or leave it in the comments!

As soon as tech devices began offering voice-command activation, consumers started wondering: are these devices listening to my private conversations and sending them back to the companies that built them?

The question has become more pressing as voice command has become ubiquitous, and started taking up residence in our homes. It’s not just Siri and Google on your phone anymore—you can now talk to your Samsung TV, Amazon Echo, Google Home, Apple TV and Nest Thermostat, among others. 

So are these products recording your heart-to-hearts, even when you’re not using them? Samsung freaked everyone out with this privacy policy statement, only to recant later and promise that it wasn’t as creepy as it sounded. Other companies make vaguely opaque statements about what their devices are recording… so what’s going on?

What they’re listening to

Devices like Google Now and Amazon Alexa are lying in wait, listening for you to utter the wake phrase (“OK Google!” or “Alexa…”). Once they hear that, they hit record and listen for the next string of words, which they send to a server in the cloud to be processed, and answered. So, that means they’re listening for their wake phrase all the time, which means… they’re listening all the time. Companies assure us they’re not recording or storing those ambient conversations, nor are they sent over the network. 

Some of your commands don’t stop at the first cloud, they get turfed to another. For example, your Samsung TV might send them to third-party providers to access information you ask for (like a cable company, if you ask for a TV listing, for example). Companies like Microsoft and Apple also say they record commands to use as data to know what customers are asking for and to improve voice recognition software. Some, like Nest (now a part of Google), may even use that data to court advertisers or improve their Google search results. Many stories circulate the web about products discussed in private conversations that suddenly show up in your Facebook ads… decide for yourself if it’s a coincidence.

Amazon Echo Dot: Devices listening

But are they eavesdropping?

Overall, investigative reports by publications like Mashable and USA Today have found that overwhelmingly, voice-command devices are not listening to consumers or recording conversations when they’re not in use. Essentially, they don’t start listening until prompted, with an “Ok, Google…” for instance, or an “Alexa…”

And according to the official policies and statements from companies, when your commands are recorded and transmitted beyond the devices for later use, that information is generally disassociated with your account or device, so it could not be associated with you at all in the future.

Wigged out yet?

Most of these devices have a mute button or a way to deactivate their listening feature altogether. Here is how to prevent a Samsung TV from spying on you, and a simple tap of the Mute button will render your Amazon Echo or Google Home deaf.

If you want to avoid the issue altogether, you might want a virtual assistant with an activation button— something you press to start the listening process… like Apple TVs remote, or the Amazon Tap.

Of course, there’s no way to know exactly what each is doing, but it doesn’t seem like there’s much cause for alarm as of yet. Then again, if you say, “Ok, Google, show me how to rob the closest bank,” and the cops show up at your door, that’s on you.

Are you worried about how companies may be listening to your conversations? Share your concerns in the comments!


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