Is Alexa and Google Home spying on me?

October 16, 2019
Comment Enozia Vakil

As our homes — our inner sanctums — become “smarter”, our lives become increasingly catalogued by our devices. Revelations about how Amazon and Google may be capturing our voices and personal data from virtual assistants continue to be the subject of controversy. 

Alexa and Google Home have been accused of being Trojan horses that spy on users 24 hours a day. While some have been quick to calm the panic and defend Amazon and Google’s conduct, consumers often lack clarity about what data is being stored and how they have the power to disable functions that enhance their privacy.

What is my Alexa and Google Home listening to?

Virtual Assistants are only triggered by their respective wake words of “OK Google” and “Alexa”. However, there have been growing concerns about the accuracy of this function and the amount of ancillary audio that is collected.

The Washington Post’s technology columnist, Geoffrey A. Fowler, listened to 4 years of his Alexa archive and discovered thousands of instances it had picked up random snippets of audio. Workers of Alexa and Google have reported numerous instances of hearing audio that the user did not intend to be heard by the device. These reports cast doubt on the protection offered by wake words. 

Related: 10 Skills For Alexa That You May Not Know About!

How is the information used?

Recordings are sent to workers who review them to assist in improving the technology, like teaching it to understand different languages, dialects and accents.  

Amazon and Google have assured users that audio clips are not associated with a user’s account and that a fraction of all clips are reviewed. However, both Google and Amazon suspended human review of users’ audio recordings earlier this year amid security concerns. 

How do I set up my Alexa and Google Home for Privacy?

Disabling the voice recording function is reasonably straightforward using the respective Alexa and Google Home apps. 

For the Amazon Alexa, go to settings and select Alexa Privacy. Select Manage How Your Data Improves Alexa. Turn off the toggle next to Help Improve Amazon Services and Develop New Features. Switch off the toggle next to your name under Use Messages to Improve Transcriptions.

For Google Home, click the Account tab in the lower right corner of the screen. Click the arrow next to your name and press Manage your Google Account. Select My Activity, and you will be taken to myactivity.google.com.

Press the pencil icon next to Web & App Activity is on. Scroll down to Show All Activity Controls. Next to Voice & Audio Activity switch the toggle off. You will be warned about the effects of pausing. If you want to proceed, scroll down and press pause. 

For further security, you also have the option to delete your past audio recordings through the apps.

Both Amazon and Google warn that the functions of the device may not operate fully with these functions disabled. You should weigh up the utility of the device versus your privacy concerns.

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