Maybe It’s Not Who is Listening to You But What?

People often joke about whether or not their T.V. or their Roomba is secretly spying on them, but what if we told you that your jokes and theories may not be far off from the truth. Obviously we’re not saying some FBI agent is sitting at his computer all day listening through your refrigerator, but when it comes to some of the everyday technologies we use you may be giving away more information then you intended.

Today we’re going to look at smart devices like Amazon’s Alexa and Google home to ask the question: “Am I being spied on?”
Is Alexa Listening?

When it comes to Alexa the answer to that question is “Well, kind of?”

While Alexa may not be recording 100% of the time it does occasionally catch snippets of conversations in your households. This is because Alexa actively records everything after hearing it’s “wake word”. So whenever you say “Hey Alexa” it knows to wake up and start recording. Because artificial intelligence isn’t perfect sometimes Alexa will mess up and start recording without you explicitly calling it. For instance if you say “Alexa” or something similar it may accidentally activate and start its recording process. Amazon’s website does confirm that in some cases “there is a small chance that your Echo device might incorrectly identify “elect a” as Alexa”(or something similar) showing that a minor vocal change could set your device off.

What’s even creepier is that Amazon has admitted that employees do listen to archived recordings to help improve Alexa’s AI and in some cases they even have location data! If you want to get even more specific Alexa can know what room you are in if you’ve named it something like “Bedroom Alexa”. Google Home and other AI’s like Siri work in a very similar way. For Alexa and Google in particular they always have to be listening so that they can catch their wake words. While they may not be recording during that time it’s weird to think about. Alexa recording’s have even been used in murder cases, but only after the direct consent of the defendant. While Alexa may be recording when you don’t want it to, Amazon is still very committed to not sharing those recordings without your permission.

We can liken Alexa or Google Home to something like cookies. It can use the websites you visit and the places you shop at to paint a pretty accurate representation of who you are and what you like. From there it can market you products that it thinks you’ll like and give you ads for things you looked up once or twice.

What Should I Do?

While technology like Alexa or Google Home may not be malicious in nature it isn’t very comforting to think about a company using your private interactions for marketing or to better develop their software. The best solution is to: either stop using these devices entirely or to change the privacy settings of the devices themselves. Amazon does suggest that if you think Alexa accidentally recorded without you permission you can go to Settings > Alexa Privacy > Review Voice History and then delete. While using your Alexa to remember your grocery list is convenient it’s always important to understand the tradeoff that comes with it.

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Sources: Washington Post, WireCutter – NY Times, Amazon, BBC News

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