Alexa Is Listening. Here's How to Keep Your Voice Assistant From Recording You.
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A woman in Portland, Ore., last week figured out that her Amazon Echo had recorded a conversation between her and her husband and then sent it to a person in their contact list. The user thought she'd been hacked, but it turned out that Alexa was simply being too helpful.
Amazon spokesperson Shelby Lichliter described the incident to Seattle’s KIRO 7:
“Echo woke up due to a word in background conversation sounding like 'Alexa.' Then, the subsequent conversation was heard as a 'send message' request. At which point, Alexa said out loud 'To whom?' At which point, the background conversation was interpreted as a name in the customer’s contact list. Alexa then asked out loud, '[contact name], right?' Alexa then interpreted background conversation as 'right.' As unlikely as this string of events is, we are evaluating options to make this case even less likely.”
While the explanation does makes sense, it doesn’t make it any less creepy.
According to a Gallup poll from March, 22 percent of respondents reported that they used smart home assistants including Amazon's Alexa or Google Home and 47 percent said that they used a digital personal assistant on a smartphone.
If you're among this group, what can you do to attain a level of control over what your smart devices do or don’t do with the information they absorb?
To start, you can delete the voice recordings.
If you have an Amazon Echo, go into the Alexa app, and from Settings, go to History and delete the recordings that are in the queue. You can do something similar for Google Home by going to myactivity.google.com, choosing filter by date and product, hitting the check mark for Voice & Audio, then hitting delete.
For all voice assistants, there is a key phrase that wakes them to start working, whether you actually want them to or not. These include “Alexa,” “OK Google,” “Hey Siri” and “Hey Cortana.” There are ways that you can disable these phrases.
To silence Siri, go to your device’s settings, General, Siri and then swipe the Hey Siri button to off. For Google Home, you go back to the myactivity.google.com page, go to the menu, click on activity controls, go down to the Voice & Audio tab and select pause Voice & Audio activity. For Cortana, if you’re on a Windows computer, choose the notebook icon, hit Settings then choose "Hey Cortana" to turn off. For the Amazon Echo, you can switch off the microphone by hitting the button on top of the device.
While the major players do have functions to turn off microphones and delete recordings, there are some options, like Mycroft, a crowdfunded open source AI assistant that allows users to opt into the storage of their recordings, instead of it being automatic.
Are you worried about eavesdropping voice assistants? Let us know in the comments.