The popularity of voice activated smart assistant devices like Amazon Echo and Google Home are increasingly quickly. Such devices can perform a variety of tasks when you speak to them. Play music, update your calendar, answer questions, provide recipes. All you need to do is ask.
But this has led to concerns that such devices are constantly listening to you; snooping. And who knows where your private conversations are going to end up? In many ways, it’s like having a stranger in your house. Silently eavesdropping on everything you say.
So should we be worried? Are these devices recording everything we say? To answer the question on whether these devices are always eavesdropping on us, we first need to see how they work.
Both the Google Home and Amazon Echo are activated by using certain words or phrases. For example, Amazon Echo by default is activated when you say “Alexa”. Since these devices need to keep an “ear” out for their activation words, they have to constantly listen to you. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t know when you activated them, and of course would not work.
However it is important to differentiate between “listening” and “translating”. Devices like the Echo and Home don’t actually translate and respond to you themselves. Instead, when you activate the device and subsequently give a command or ask a question, the device records what you say, connects to their server using the Internet and sends that recording to their respective HQ. That recording is translated, and a response is formulated and sent back to the device, which in turn relays it to you, the user.
So the device itself is only listening, and only once you activate the device does it record what you say and sends it off to the server for translation and response.
This means that while the device is listening to you, the only analysis of what you’re saying is simply looking out for those activation words. Without the activation words, the Echo or Home device is sort of like a disembodied ear. Without the brain (the servers located at HQ) it merely listens without any kind of processing.
So yes, devices like the Echo are indeed constantly eavesdropping on you, but unless you activate it with those magic activation words, your conversations don’t mean anything to it. The Echo itself doesn’t record them, nor send those conversations anywhere and it also doesn’t possess the ability to work out what you’re saying.
Of course if you are worried, the devices can be muted or turned off at any time which cuts the microphone off so no listening happens. Of course these devices won’t work until you re-enable them.
What about the recordings of what I say when I activate the device?
Since these devices do record what you say and sends those recordings across the Internet when they are activated, users may be justly worried about what happens to those recordings.
All of the popular voice activation assistants – including both Home and Echo – encrypt all recordings as they send them to their servers, meaning even if someone did manage to intercept such a recording, they wouldn’t be able to make sense out of it.
Amazon and Google both keep your recordings on file. They say this is to help improve their devices who can “learn” about you, and to help improve the overall AI of the assistants. Both Amazon and Google users can delete those recordings by heading over to their respective Manage websites. However both companies may keep some recordings of you on their servers to help improve their products.