Smart speaker with icons swirling around it
Technology & Security

Are 'Smart Speakers' Listening to Everything?

Both Amazon Echo and Google Home are so-called smart speakers that answer to voice requests. If you have one, you probably love that you can get answers to a variety of questions in seconds, or hear your favorite song with a simple audible: “Alexa: play Bruno Mars.” But you also may wonder just how much these devices are listening to, and what happens with the data they retain. Here’s a quick true or false:

True or False? The device is listening all the time.

False: While the microphone is on all the time*, the devices don’t actually “listen” until you say their “wake word,” (e.g., ‘Alexa’ or ‘OK Google’). Once you say the magic word, the device starts recording and sends the information to a server to process and provide an appropriate response or action.

*Good to note: these devices have a mute button. While it makes them virtually useless, it will certainly prevent any voice recording.

True or False? Your voice requests and data are stored forever.

Technically True: Unless you proactively go into your settings and choose to delete your recordings, they’ll remain on an Amazon or Google server for good. But it’s easy to delete your recordings – either one-by-one, or all at once. So if you don’t like the idea of your search history or dictated text messages being out in the ether for eternity, get into the habit of regularly purging those files.

True or False? Amazon and Google sell your data.

False: These two behemoth companies have no need to sell your data because they already have ad platforms.

Instead, the data collected from your voice recordings is used along with your Google or Amazon search history to develop a better understanding of your needs and tailor online advertisements to you. The more information collected, the better Google and Amazon get at suggesting products and services you’ll find useful – and that’s where your voice data becomes so valuable. Advertisers pay top dollar to place ads online where their target audience is most likely to see them and make a purchase.

So far, it looks like ads will remain online only. Neither company has indicated they’ll use the voice recordings for ads on the devices themselves, but time will tell the longer they’re on the market.

In the meantime, it’s up to you to determine your comfort level with how much Google and Amazon “know” about your preferences. Remember: you can regularly purge your recordings to protect your data, but doing so means the ads you see won’t be as relevant to you. And since you’ll see online ads no matter what, why not have them be for products and services you might actually use?

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