Are our voice assistants spying on us?

Voice assistants are everywhere now. The unquestioned hit of the recent Consumer Electronics show was Amazon’s Alexa, which wasn’t even revealed at the show. Alexa now controls more devices than ever before and it seemed like everyone wanted to talk about how they ether were tied into Alexa or how they were going to be, in a few months.

Voice control is a bona fide hit. It seems like all the concerns I had in this article (believe it or not, from four years ago) have been addressed. All but one: how private is your voice assistant data? How private should it be? How much should one company know about you?

When you sit down and think about Alexa, and the hardware that she needs, it’s pretty clear that you’re getting a great bargain. Those Echo Dots are dirt cheap and they couldn’t possibly be helping subsidize the massive servers that run Alexa. So how is Amazon doing it? Simple. They’re gathering all sorts of valuable data from you. They know what you ask for, so they know what you want. They can use this information to send you ads for products that will satisfy your needs. Did you ever notice that after you search for something, it sometimes shows up in your Facebook feed? That’s no coincidence… it’s all done on purpose. Your personal information is gathered, tabulated, and sold. It happens all the time.

Now, with voice assistants, you’re even more likely to ask complex questions. You’re also more likely to connect up other devices in your home so you can control them, and that means an even more complete picture of you. The data becomes so valuable that Amazon can practically give away the hardware. And all the time, Amazon is building an incredibly nuanced picture of who you are. It can even learn your voice as opposed to that of your spouse so more than one picture can be created.

With all this amazing technology, though, comes some serious privacy issues. If Alexa (or Siri, or Google) is always listening, are they always recording? And if they’re always recording, can that information be used against you in a court of law? There are test cases being used to decide that very question right now.

We know that Alexa records your interactions, and you can learn how to listen to them here. Alexa could be recording a lot more, too. She’s always listening for her name after all. Remember it was just a few years ago that it was discovered that Samsung Smart TVs had always-on voice recording even when you said you didn’t want it. Maybe we shouldn’t be worried as much about the Russians spying on us as we worry about our own technology.

Personally I am very worried about this. At any given time I could be recorded by half a dozen devices. With the long terms and conditions everything has, who knows what I’ve agreed to? All I know is that none of us should ever presume we can have a private conversation, even in a closed room, unless we strip down naked and get in a room with no windows. That’s about what it takes today.

Voice control of some sort has been around now for nearly a decade and we’re just now beginning to really ask these questions. How long will it be before we get the answers?

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.