Privacy on smart speakers: Prevent them from listening to conversations

There are a few tricks and tips you should follow to improve the privacy of your smart speakers at home if you are suspicious of them and don’t want them to store what you tell them or even listen to you without permission. You can mute the microphone, erase history, or set limits so they can’t store all the information they know or send it to the cloud or send it to third parties.

How do they work?

Generally, all smart speakers follow the same pattern: the speakers are plugged in somewhere in the house, have a microphone, and they are “activated” when you mention a series of words “Magic” or commands that vary depending on the brand. For example, in the case of Google Home or Google Nest you have to say Ok Google so that it starts listening and you can tell it what you want. In the case of Amazon Echo the words to repeat are “Alexa”. Or “Hey Siri”, as we already know, in case the smart speaker you have is from the Apple brand. This information is usually sent to the cloud or what we say is usually recorded until you delete it manually or configure it to self-destruct after a while.

google home gray

What is the problem?

There are many cases that have come to light that ensure that workers from different companies listen to the conversations we have with the assistant. You may simply think that it does not matter if he listens to you if you ask your Google Home who Batman is. But much information can be obtained from your day-to-day questions. In addition, the problem goes further: some third-party company workers who are hired to study the conversations say that they not only listen to the conversation when the commands are mentioned, but also those that the users have in private. Good because the speaker is mistakenly activated in a moment where you think it has been activated or simply because the microphone can be activated without us knowing…

Controversies and scandals

In recent scandals, some of the companies have defended themselves. Google admitted, for example, that there are audio snippets that are listened to by third parties (although less than 0.2%) and are sent to subcontracted employees who would be language experts and who would help improve the product. In addition, they assure from Mountain View that the information is anonymous… but it is anonymous because it arrives without saying that it is yours although if you say your name and address it will be impossible for it to be anonymous. It will depend on the message that the privacy problem is greater.

Also Amazon starred in a scandal in 2019 in which the Bloomberg medium discovered that listening to and analyzing the recordings was habitual with more than 1,000 clips daily, although they assured that it was completely confidential and a very low percentage … but the controversy is based on whether they are safe or not.

google home vs amazon echo vs apple homepod alexa assistant siri

What do the conditions of each one say?

We can take a look at the conditions of each of the smart speakers to know when they listen to you, what information they collect and with whom they share it. We anticipate that all of them share information with third parties and that none of them confirms that there are people behind listening to what we are talking about.

Amazon

In the case of the conditions of use of Alexa we find that collects information and sends it to the cloud once it detects the keyword. “By default, devices with integrated Alexa only transmit audio to the cloud if the device detects the activation word (or activates Alexa by pressing a button). When a device with integrated Alexa detects the activation word and begins to transmit audio to the cloud ”, they explain from the conditions of Alexa and Echo devices. “If the cloud check does not also detect the trigger word, Alexa stops processing the audio and ends streaming the audio to the cloud. If Alexa confirms that the activation word has been said, Alexa will constantly try to determine when your request has ended and immediately afterwards it will transmit the audio, ”he concludes.

But what if you don’t say the keyword and still interpret what has been said. If you say something similar and the Amazon Echo He thinks you said Alexa. They are called unintentional activations. “Every time your Echo device detects the activation word, a visual or audible indicator will indicate that it is recording audio to transmit it to the cloud, and you can review and delete the voice recordings associated with your account (including any audio resulting from unintended activations) in your Voice History ”, they explain.

Google

In the case of Google, the use made of data and information is quite similar. In its Google Home conditions we find: “We collect information to provide the best services to all our users: from determining basic information, such as the language you speak, to more complex data, such as the ads that will be most useful to you, the people that interest you most online, or YouTube videos that can like. The type of information that Google collects and how that information is used depends on the use you make of our services and on how you manage privacy controls ”

They collect all the data of your activity and not only what you speak: what terms are you looking for, what videos do you watch, Views and interactions, information about voice and audio, purchase activity, users with whom you communicate, activity on websites or Chrome browsing history that you have synchronized with your Google account. Also, they can even record information from the phone log or callers or callers.

Google sends the information to the servers and stores it for several months, something that we can configure ourselves from the “My activity” section and that we will explain in the next paragraphs. You can choose to have the information removed every 3 months or every 18 months automatically or you can delete it manually every day.

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Apple and Siri

Apple’s HomePod is less common than the previous ones but it is also one of the best or most popular smart speakers. And it also collects data although they promise to try to be as few as possible. From the privacy conditions of Apple and Siri we can read: “When you ask Siri to read or search for information in an app such as Notes or Messages, or when you receive a suggestion from Maps, your personal information is saved on your device and not it is sent to Apple’s servers. ” That is, as far as possible and as long as it is “internal” to your device, the information is not sent to the servers. But there is some information that is sent.

“Although we try to make all or almost everything run on your device, some features require the response of Apple servers in real time. In these cases, we use random identifiers instead of your Apple ID to protect your privacy. The data of your location can be sent to Apple to improve the precision of the answers, but you have the possibility of deactivating the location services at any time, ”they collect from Apple.

privacy on smart speakers on Siri

We find as a point in favor that searches and requests are not linked to your Apple ID to identify you, but are stored with a random identifier made up of a sequence of letters and numbers that seeks to maintain your privacy.

Although everyone promises that the information is as little as possible, as you can read, everyone listens to you and sends the information. Some more than others. In any case, the question is the same: how do we improve privacy?

Unplugging is not an option

The most basic option is to unplug to improve the privacy of smart speakers. Don’t you want to be heard? Unplug the speaker. But this does not make much sense since the “grace” of these devices is to be able to ask you anything when you need to. If you have to ask him to lower the blinds or to activate the television and for that you must get up to plug it in, the speaker does not make much sense because you can do it yourself when you get up. That is, the logical thing is that they are always plugged in unless you are having a private conversation at a specific moment and you want to unplug it “just in case”. But it is not a long-term solution or not the most useful, certainly.

We propose below some options to improve privacy in the different smart speakers if you have one and want to continue using it as before.

Improve privacy

Generally, you can improve the privacy of smart speakers by removing what is saved or by blocking options that allow your conversations with the speaker to be transferred to the cloud.

On Amazon

If you have an Amazon Echo device you can improve privacy from the assistant application that you will have on your mobile. You will have the Alexa app on the phone and You can follow some very simple steps to change it:

  • Open the Alexa application on your mobile
  • Go to the Configuration section
  • Tap on “Alexa Privacy”
  • You will see several options that you can activate or deactivate
    • Check voice history
    • Manage the history of smart home devices
    • Manage skills permissions
      • Access the physical address of the device
      • Access country and postal code information
      • See Alexa lists
      • Modify Alexa lists
      • Use Amazon Pay
      • Full access name
      • Access name
    • Manage the way your data helps us improve Alexa
  • Tap on the one you want to modify
  • Follow the steps

Alexa - Privacy on smart speakers

Before choosing one or the other, we explain the different sections and what they will allow you, how you can improve the privacy of the Amazon Echo speaker.

  • View voice history will allow you to access all the recordings made by the speaker on any date. You can choose the interval for everything you have said today or everything you have said in recent months. You can also select specifically which recordings you want to delete by viewing the exact phrase and its time. Mark the ones you want to delete and confirm. From here we can also activate the voice suppression that will allow us to ask Alexa to delete the stored data.
  • Manage device history: From here you will see the information of third-party home devices such as switches, thermostats, etc. You can touch the button “Delete the hospital of smart devices” to delete all the information, although you will not delete the link with these devices or the name or type of devices.
  • Manage skills permissions: You will be able to access all the Alexa skills that have been requested permissions and remove access in case you have regretted it, for example. Or simply check what is activated to get an idea and find out if there is something you can eliminate or no longer use.
  • Manage how your data helps improve Alexa: Here you can see all the information about how voice recordings are used to “train” Alexa. And you can disable the button that says “Help us improve Amazon services and develop new features” to restrict what they listen to or what they use. Also disable “Using voice recordings” in the Help to improve Alexa section. This way the recordings will not be used to develop new functions. You will prevent them from being manually reviewed.

Alexa Amazon Echo - privacy on smart speakers

Turn off the microphone

All Amazon Echo devices have a microphone off button so you don’t need to unplug to disconnect it. This button disconnects electricity from the microphone and there is a red indicator light that will light up indicating that it is disabled. If the microphone is turned off, you will not be able to send audio to the cloud at those times so you will not have to worry about whether you are being listened to or not and it will greatly improve the privacy of the smart speakers.

Alexa, delete it

If you have activated the option in the first section, in which you can ask Alexa to delete everything, you can delete the voice recording you just said or any everything you said on the day. Just say to the speaker “Alexa, delete everything I just said” or okn “Alexa, delete everything I said today” and it will be automatically removed from Amazon and cloud history.

When you delete the recordings, Amazon removes them from the cloud and the transcription of the petitions. Keep in mind, as collected from the Echo help information, that if the request has been to a specific Alexa skill, the voice recording does not delete the information of the developer of that skill. In addition, you can control the permissions as we have explained in previous paragraphs.

amazon echo - privacy in smart speakers

In Google

You can follow several tricks and tips so that they do not listen to you or so that what you have said or searched does not remain stored for months.

Turn off the microphone

As with Amazon, all Google Home devices have the option to turn off the microphone. In the Google Home Mini or in the Google Nest Mini you will find a switch on one of the sides that you can turn off. In the Google Home you will see that there is a button to mute the microphone at the bottom and the wizard will automatically tell you if it is muted. Finally, on the Google Nest screen there is a switch on the back.

google home mini

Delete your data

From the Google Activity website you can access all the information that your device has about you, when you want to delete the activity or configure automatic deletion, for example.

You will see that here you have all recorded voice commands and you can touch on the three points in the right corner of each one and click on delete. But you will also be able to see a trash can icon next to today and delete everything you have done every day. You can choose to delete a specific order or delete everything by days as you want it to disappear.

You can also delete all activity:

  • Go to the menu on the left side of the screen
  • Tap on “Delete activity by …”
  • Choose the time
    • Last minute
    • Last day
    • Since ever
    • Custom period (choose the dates you want to delete)
  • Confirm the time you want it to be removed
  • You will see some examples
  • Confirm in “Delete”

Clear Google data - privacy on smart speakers

Automatic removal

  • Tap on “Automatic deletion
  • Choose from the three options
    • Automatically delete activity that is more than 3 months old (and manually delete it at any time)
    • Automatically delete activity that is over 18 months old (and manually delete it at any time)
    • Do not automatically delete
  • Select the one you think best
  • Click on “Next”
  • Confirm with the button “Understood”

Automatically remove information from Google

Activity in the wizard

  • Go to the Home app on your mobile
  • Tap on your account in the upper right corner
  • Go to My Activity
  • You will see “Activity in the Google Assistant”
  • Tap on “Activity is saved”
  • Deactivate the option “Activity in Web and applications”
  • Confirm that the option “Include voice and audio recordings” is unchecked
  • Click on the “Close” button

Google Home Privacy on speakers

Apple Homepod

You can also ask Siri not to hear you or turn off the microphone.

Turn off the microphone

You can ask the Apple Homepod to turn off the microphone and stop listening to you. Unlike the previous ones, which work with a button, in this case it is enough to say “Hey Siri, stop listening” and it will stop automatically and will not jump by mistake. Once you have the microphone deactivated you can press the top of the HomePod to hear you if you have any request to make but it will not jump when you hear your voice.

Deactivate personal requests and location

From the settings of the iOS application you can disable Siri access to personal information to improve the privacy of Apple smart speakers. You can disable it but note that you will not then access Messages, Reminders, Contacts, Calendar, Notes or other applications that are installed and that work with Siri.

You can also disable the location:

  • Go to the iOS or iPadOS Home app
  • Press and hold the HomePod
  • Tap the gear to access the settings
  • Disable location services

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