If you’ve been comfortable with websites tracking your activities for the past so many years, you probably won’t have a problem with Google Home and Amazon Alexa recording your voice that using that data.
But what do they use those voice clips for? Have you ever wondered? But wait a minute. If you think this an exposé on how Amazon and Google are plotting heinous privacy crimes against you using your own voice, then this is probably not the article you want to be reading.
That said, most people aren’t aware of how digital assistants work. In order to understand that, you can simply look at how websites typically work.
Whenever you are online, there are details collected about your browsing habits – the things you search for, the sites you visit, the content you consume and many other details about your internet usage.
Nearly every website on the planet has cookies that have a specific job to do – find out more about you vis-a-vis your movements on their site. It gives them valuable data about what users like and don’t like so they can keep improving the overall user experience.
On a much larger scale, companies like Google, Amazon and Microsoft collect user data from dozens of different sources, including search engines, social media interactions, email, web and mobile applications, browsers and so on.
They’re not the only ones, either. Nearly every tech company you interact with online – deliberately or by default – knows much more about you than you realize.
So, how do the voice recordings made by Google Home and Amazon Alexa differ? They don’t. They are merely an extension of the data harvesting activities that companies have been doing for a long time.
Google Home and Amazon Echo are constantly listening to you, even when you aren’t addressing them directly. When you talk to them, your voice is recorded and sent to their cloud servers for processing, and the processed statement or question comes back to you in the form of an answer or a specific action. As time goes by, your voice clips are analyzed using deep learning and other artificial intelligence programs to better understand your needs and be better prepared for your future questions.
In a way, it is identical to the way your internet activities are logged, analyzed and acted upon. The only difference is the medium – in this case, your voice, rather than other input actions like mouse-clicks, key strokes, touch commands and so on.
Of course, the fact that they’re always listening doesn’t mean that everything is being recorded. Only the words that follow the “activation phrases” or “wake words” – Hey Siri, Hey Alexa, Ok Google, Cortana and so on – are recorded and sent to their respective cloud servers.
This is the only way a smart device can work, in fact, because the computing power required for artificial intelligence is tremendous. That’s why they don’t work when offline, because your internet connection is their lifeline to the mothership.
That said, in some cases, as with Microsoft Cortana, some data is stored on your device. It’s similar to data that applications cache on a local device to help them retrieve older information more quickly.
But Why Do They Constantly Listen to My Conversations?
The need to continuously keep listening is part of how these voice assistants work. Unless they’re listening to you all the time, how are they going to know when you say those magic words to wake them up and respond to you?
Think of the pre-buffer frames that your camera takes when you put it on burst mode. Those few frames preserve the continuity and allow the camera to make adjustments on the fly. They also serve to start taking great pictures as soon as you click the shutter button. That pre-buffer is similar to Google Home or Amazon Echo listening to your ambient conversation. As soon as you say the wake words, they’re up and running. And that’s when the recording starts, not before.
If you’re still not comfortable with this concept, it’s probably a better idea to disable the ‘always listening’ mode. On Google Home, its the mute button on the back. On Amazon Echo, just press the mic mute button on top of the device. It’s that simple. If you have a remote control, you can mute the device mic and still use voice remote’s mic button to give Alexa commands. It’s the same type of functionality provided by the Fire TV and Fire Stick remote unit.
In summary, you shouldn’t normally be worried about your voice being recorded or even the device listening to ambient conversation. Even the data being transferred to and from your device and the cloud is encrypted to the highest standards.
Most companies today take cybersecurity very seriously because the negative impact of a major attack is disproportionately massive. Just ask Yahoo if you don’t believe me. Or ask Apple about the numerous iCloud hacks over the last few years. Although these attacks show that even the biggest of companies can’t fully prevent having their systems hacked into, they know the repercussions only too well.
So, if you’re comfortable browsing the web, ordering online and using many of the technology advances of today, there’s no reason you should worry about Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant or Cortana. They’re merely the next level of technology that we need to get used to as consumers.
In the famous (and possibly a bit insensitive) words of Alphabet’s Executive Chairman, Eric Schmidt:
“If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”
At the end of the day, it’s how you view your online privacy and to what extent you’re willing to trade that off in exchange for experiencing the joys of modern technology.
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