Is my "Always Listening" smart speaker listening to my confidential talks as well?

May 3, 2018

People have always had privacy concerns over long-distance communications technologies. These concerns have existed right from the days of letters and telegraphs, to telephones, emails and text messages, and the most-recent VoIP services and social media messaging platforms. And it now continues with the next generation technologies as well.

Voice-activated home assistants like Amazon's Alexa and Google Assistant are some of the most exciting next-gen technologies around us. While they make life easier in many ways, there's a fear that they may also be endangering people’s privacy. Reason, the manufacturers usually brand these devices as "Always Listening" but never really bother to explain what it exactly means. Do they really listen to every single talk in the house? This confusion, or many times a fear, is always there. So what exactly is it, when the Alexa or Google Assistant in your home can hear you, and what can you do about it, let's find out.


Is my home assistant always listening to me?

Yes - but not in the way you think.

Your Amazon Echo or Google Home is basically designed to look good, house a microphone, and be able to provide feedback, and nothing more really. There aren't any miniature super-computers hidden inside your home assistant, meaning it can't crunch a lot of data. What it instead does is forward your query to a place that does have super-computers, and get back to you with the results.

But for that to happen, it first needs to listen to your query, and that too every time you ask for. That means it's always active, trying to catch your voice. Yes, the microphone in your Echo or Google Home is always active unless you physically turn it off. It indeed is constantly hearing every little sound in your house, but not really listening to them. It's actually listening for a “hotword" or specific trigger phrase - by default, “OK, Google” in Google Home and "Alexa" in the Echo. It has no idea what to do when it hears anything else.



When it hears the trigger phrase, the whole unit wakes and that's when it begins recording voices. The device records a few seconds of audio followed by the hotword, and sends it to the cloud. The super-computer out there analyses the audio file and then delivers the response to you back through the device in your home. If the audio file doesn't make any sense to the computer, the cloud simply rejects them.


Does the record stays permanently?

Yes, the recordings your home assistant makes when it's triggered are stored in the cloud and are accessible to you via smartphone app. Using the app, you can listen back to audio recordings of any ‘interaction’ and delete them if you wish to. You can also disable the online storage of these recordings, making the device delete them instantly after the interaction.

However, neither disabling, nor deleting your query history is advisable (you may still delete some selected ones). This will more-or-less prevent you from getting the full smart-assistance experience, as it prevents the Assistant from learning from your interests and behaviors. Neither Amazon, nor Google is sending your voice files off to anyone else, so you can always stay worry-free.

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