Should I Worry About My Voice Assistant Spying On Me?

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by Amy Fletcher

3.25 billion digital assistants are currently installed in homes across the world, according to Statista. This number is expected to grow to 8 billion by 2023 as more and more households welcome the likes of Alexa, Siri, and Cortana into their homes. While voice-activated assistants can help the young and old to be independent, socialize, learn new skills, and have fun, 41% of people say that they don’t trust them. So are these individuals right to be concerned or are voice-activated assistants nothing more than a harmless gadget?

Always listening

The findings of a study published by Consumer Watchdog found that voice-activated assistants are always listening, even when their wake word hasn’t been said. Amazon’s digital assistant, for example, should only listen in when the word “Alexa” is said. However, Consumer Watchdog found evidence that confirmed as long as the device is switched on, it will eavesdrop on your conversations. There have been plenty of examples of this happening, such as in May 2018 when a couple’s private conversation was recorded and sent to a friend, and the case of the empty house where the digital assistant recorded the family’s dog barking on 13 separate occasions.

Even when you do say the set wake word to ask your voice assistant to do something, the data is recorded and sent to the cloud. This is also the case when any accident information is recorded. Both Amazon and Apple have openly admitted to employing teams to analyze this data to improve customer service. But confidential encounters and requests are being stored, such as users’ medical history and even drug deals.  

Targeting customers

According to Consumer Watchdog, both Amazon and Google have filed patents for their digital assistants that revolve around the devices monitoring the habits of their users. This is so they can attempt to sell goods to them based on their needs, interests, and requirements. In light of this information, John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog warned that customers are being spied on in their own homes and that they should be careful with the information that they reveal to these devices.

But all of the companies behind the leading voice-activated assistants deny that this is their main aim. Amazon claims that the team that analyzes their recorded data do so to enhance the “customer experience” and that none of the data can be traced back to the source. Apple has a similar explanation, stating that the information obtained “is used to help Siri and dictation … understand you better and recognize what you say”. While Google says that it’s absolutely necessary to listen to these recordings in order to improve the functionality of their voice assistant.

Security risk

One of the most worrying things about digital assistants always listening in and recording our conversations is the amount of sensitive data that they could be collating. One user’s Google assistant transcript obtained by a British newspaper revealed the key safe code to his back door while recording a conversation with his friend. It’s, therefore, plausible to believe that they could also record full addresses and bank details that are given out during a private phone call, for example.

It’s also important to remember that these voice-activated assistants can be hacked. In fall 2019, it was revealed that Skills designed to be downloaded on both Amazon Alexa and Google Home had been hacked. These Skills meant that the system looked like it wasn’t recording when in fact it was. It then went on to request the user’s login information, including their password. Most worryingly, it’s believed that the hack could have been in place for at least a year before it was discovered and rectified.

There are benefits too

While there clearly are some security concerns connected to voice-activated assistants listening in to people’s every word, they are proving beneficial too. For years, police have been pulling the recorded data from these gadgets in high-profile crimes, including murder cases, to help them collect evidence. Reports confirm that Alexa recordings were used as evidence in the murders of Christine Sullivan, Jenna Pellegrini, Silvia Galva, and Victor Collins, although police have never revealed whether the recordings revealed any incriminating evidence on any of the suspects accused in these cases.

Protecting yourself

Despite the security risks associated with owning a voice-activated assistant, you probably won’t want to get rid of yours if you’ve already invested in one. This isn’t a problem, but you should take steps to safeguard your personal information online. First of all, it’s wise to get your head around the cloud and understand how Google, Apple, and Amazon store and use your data as this is sure to make you think twice about how much information you share. It’s also worth having an effective firewall in place to protect your entire WI-FI network and to limit the damage hackers can do if they do tap into your digital assistant.

There are also things you should do to limit the amount of information that your voice-activated system keeps on you. It’s beneficial to track the recordings that your voice-activated assistant has collected via its associated app. In most cases, these recordings can be deleted as soon as they are made. If you want to keep the recordings but don’t want Amazon, Google, or Apple employees snooping on you, you can go to the system’s app or to your main account settings and refuse to give them permission to listen to your recordings.

You might also want to consider muting the microphone on your digital assistant when sensitive conversations are going on in your home. This is easily done by pressing the microphone button on the assistant. Or, for even greater peace of mind, turn off the power supply so you can be sure you can’t be heard when you’re making a verbal bank transaction or setting up a verbal pincode.

Voice-activated assistants are growing in popularity and a staple part of many people’s homes. But before you welcome one into your abode, you should carefully think about the information that it could gather on you, and how you’ll limit this.

About the author

Rsz Amypic 2 Amy Fletcher
Amy Fletcher
Freelance Writer

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