So you just received the gift of an Amazon Echo and, along with it, a bunch of potential online privacy concerns.
“This thing’s going to be listening to me all the time now, isn’t it?”
“What’s it actually doing with my data?”
And, asking for a friend … “Will Jeff Bezos hear me fart?”
When you welcome a smart speaker into your home, there’s a lot to consider in terms of personal privacy and safety. (And some questions are weightier than others.)
For starters, smart speakers are equipped with microphones and each houses a voice-activated “virtual assistant” that listens for your commands. So it is important to be aware of what you actually say in the company of Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, or Google’s generically named “Assistant.”
“Hey Siri, set a 10-minute pasta timer,” is one command you might give. “Hey Siri, remember this nine-digit number” — and the number is your social security number — well, just trust us and don’t do that.
Whether you’ve got an Amazon Echo, Apple’s HomePod Mini, or the Google Nest Hub, the most critical question you can probably ask is “How deep into my digital life am I willing to let my smart speaker delve?”
To answer that question, you’ll want to get familiar with how different companies handle your data and consider what that means for your internet safety. Then scroll through your device settings so you can set limits where you see fit.
Are Alexa, Siri, and Google listening to everything I say?
Well, yes, sort of — but it’s a little more complicated than that.
Alexa is always listening, but it only starts processing your query when it hears its wake word — whether that be “Alexa” or “Amazon” or “computer.” Ditto for Google, which starts processing commands after you say “Hey, Google.” For Apple's Siri, it’s “Hey, Siri” (and that may change soon to just, “Siri”).
But errors do happen. Sometimes Alexa, Siri and Google are mistakenly triggered into action by words that sound similar to their wake word. Studies show this can happen up to 19 times per day — and that means your smart speaker could inadvertently record snippets of conversations you may assume are private.
Each company handles the voice data captured by your smart speaker a little bit differently.
Alexa records and tags recordings with your account name. Amazon offers an auto-delete feature.
When you ask your Amazon Echo a question, Amazon holds onto an audio recording of the interaction. (The same goes for misfires mentioned above.) Amazon associates this audio clip with your Amazon account so the company knows if you or someone in your household just asked Alexa for toilet paper. (Google does this too with its speaker. Apple says it doesn’t.)
Amazon lets you listen to the audio recordings of your Alexa queries on the Review Voice History section of its site. You can listen back to them here or even delete them, but for folks with online privacy in mind, remember that Amazon may still hang on to text-only receipts of what you asked.
Google records and tags recordings with your account name. Google offers an auto-delete feature.
Google’s virtual assistant ties audio of your queries to your Google account, but the company says audio recordings are turned off by default. You can view a log of your interactions with your Google assistant here and turn on the “auto-delete” setting.
Siri records and tags recordings with a random identifier (not your account name). Apple does not offer an auto-delete feature.
While Amazon and Google tie your voice queries to your actual account name, anything you say to Siri is labeled only with a random identifier when sent to Apple — which we’re calling a win for your internet security and privacy. One potential downside is that you can’t go back and listen to old recordings. On the other hand, you can rest easy that “your personal information isn’t gathered to sell to advertisers or other organizations,” according to Apple.
Siri doesn’t have an auto-delete feature like Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s assistant, so if you want to delete your Siri history, venture into the settings.
Is my smart speaker doing anything shady with my voice data?
Well, it certainly doesn’t help that the three companies that produce the most popular smart speakers — Amazon, Apple and Google — all, at one point, were found to have employees listening to the audio of users’ queries in order to train their AI software. Here’s what to watch out for, depending on which product you have.
The company uses your voice recordings to help train Alexa, and it uses personal data stored on its servers for other purposes. The company’s Alexa white paper is filled with legalese but one specific line, on page 7, stands out: “Data is retained when it serves a business purpose.”
“When it serves a business purpose” feels very different from statements made by competitors like Apple, which specifies that it doesn’t use your info to build a marketing profile on you (more on that in a minute). As Wired has reported, Amazon collects a lot of information — from what you’re asking Alexa, to what you’re buying on Amazon.com, to what you’re watching on Prime video, etc. Sometimes even Amazon itself has trouble keeping track of everything it knows about us.
The company states that virtual assistant queries aren’t sold to third parties and aren’t used to build marketing profiles on users. Apple claims it analyzes some Siri requests in order to improve how well the assistant works. Also worth noting: earlier in 2022, a bug in Apple’s iOS15 allowed users’ interactions with Siri to be recorded, even though they’d opted out. Apple acknowledged and addressed the error.
Where do I find more internet security tips for smart speakers?
If you’ve got an Amazon device, head to the Privacy section of Alexa’s site to find and delete your audio recordings, manage your Alexa data, change the permissions for third-party Alexa apps known as skills, and more.
If you’re worried about Amazon saving your audio, you can set your Alexa device to automatically delete voice recordings older than 3 or 18 months. Open the Alexa app, go to Settings, then Alexa Privacy. Or just tell Alexa, “delete what I just said” to quickly wipe that embarrassing question about your mole.
For Google-brand smart speakers, check out the Google Nest Safety Center and the security and privacy section for tips on keeping your data safe. Like with Alexa, you can quickly tell your Google Nest or other assistant device to delete that thing you just said with the command, “Delete today’s activity,” among other magic phrases.
Last but not least, Apple keeps all things privacy-related on one central webpage. Bonus points to them for writing it in plain English and throwing in some fun, swoopy animations. If you use Siri, go into Settings on your iPhone or HomePod device and delete your query history every so often. Apple also offers handy directions for how to delete Siri history from your watch, iPad, TV and other devices.
The devices you bring into your home may be persistently listening, but there’s no reason you can’t be just as persistent about protecting your online privacy. For the privacy-conscious, Apple’s Siri may be your best bet. Although choosing Siri means passing up the sheer depth of knowledge Google’s Assistant has when it comes to answering questions or the smart home device compatibility offered by Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant.