In-home voice assistants like the Amazon Echo and Google Home are convenient, but are they also a secret back door for the government and corporations to spy on everything you say? No. Of course not. Reports of the Echo and Google Home’s ability to spy on you have been greatly exaggerated.
People are naturally worried about the possibility of putting a device like the Amazon Echo in their home. You’re putting a microphone in your house and telling it to listen to everything just in case you call it’s name? How weird is that? However, there are a lot of misconceptions about how this works, what Amazon does with that data, and how easy it is for a government to get access to the microphone in order to spy on you.
Your Echo Is Always Listening, But Amazon Isn’t
Let’s start by addressing how devices like the Echo and Google Home work. While Amazon and Google say that their devices are “always listening,” that doesn’t mean that they’re always recording. Both devices use local processing to listen for their wake word. This wake word detection includes a running buffer of the last few seconds of audio it picked up, though this data is never transmitted anywhere, and is deleted as new audio comes in. In practice, your Echo would never have more than the last few seconds of audio stored on it.
Once the device detects the wake word—in Amazon’s case, usually “Alexa”—it’s another story. The Echo sends everything you say after the wake word (plus a fraction of a second from before the wake word, according to Amazon) to Amazon’s servers. There, the audio is analyzed to detect your voice command, and the servers send the response back to your Echo. Amazon also stores the audio of your voice command—as well as the response—and ties this data to your account. This isn’t just for Amazon’s benefit. You can see, review, and erase your voice command history, and even confirm when Alexa gets a command right to train it better.
From a privacy standpoint, that voice history may be a concern (and we’ll address that in a bit), but it’s a heck of a lot of better than an entire audio log of everything you’ve ever said in your own home. Simply put, neither the Echo nor Google Home have the capability to record or listen to everything you say out of the box.
Of course, that just deals with their intended purpose.
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