Hello, is there anyone NOT listening?

It’s quite fascinating to discover many of the gadgets presented in sci-fi movies decades ago are slowly, but surely, becoming a contemporary reality.

We have self-driving cars (not flying just yet), we can use watches as phones (Bond had his very own version of a wrist-worn walkie-talkie in 1981) and we can use personal robotic assistants, to whom we dictate daily chores.

All this is great, but what does it mean in terms of personal privacy? How much are we willing to sacrifice for the sake of saving a bit of effort?

Alexa, take the microphone!

In the above-mentioned spy-fi movies, such as vintage Bond, the secret agent would often look for secret microphones or “wires” hidden in his/her apartment or phone.

In nowadays’ reality, we, ourselves, appear to be purchasing so-called self-spying devices or apps, which we very easily and openly allow into our most intimate activities. Such examples are Apple’s Siri, Google Home or the more recent Amazon Echo a.k.a. Alexa.

This last and most recent example is a voice-controlled digital assistant, activated via a “wake word”, such as “Alexa” (the default), “Amazon” or “Echo”. Basically, in order to function, the device has to listen to everything people say around it, unless it’s manually turned off.

Let’s face it, most users will probably opt for the default settings and not manually turn the mics (yes, “mics”, there are 7 of them) on whenever they need to access their digital assistant. Such an effort would really defeat the device’s original purpose, really.

In these circumstances, Amazon Echo will keep about 1 minute of audio in its memory, in case it is somehow connected to a question it is addressed. However, according to USA Today, as new sound is recorded, the old one is erased. Only when the Echo hears its wake-up word does it begin sending a stream of audio to the cloud to be converted into text that the program can understand and act upon.

All this sounds well, but, just like us, Alexa can mishear its name and then randomly send recordings into the cloud. All the recordings can be used in police investigations should there be a valid and binding legal demand.

Furthermore, we all know about the dangers of IoT (Internet of Things). Just think of last year’s DDoS attack, believed to be one the largest in history, caused by the Mirai botnet, which is largely made up of so-called IoT devices, such as CCTV video cameras and digital video recorders.

Last but not least, the searches made using Alexa can also be used for advertising purposes, as is the case of mostly everything we search online (dictated or typed). For instance, a journalist from The Guardian reports how he and his wife were discussing babies at a certain point and a few days later their Kindle began showing diaper ads.

So…

Use the technology of the future, but also consider your #privacy. Here are some #tipsandtricks for #Amazon… Click to Tweet

How can we stay private while using Alexa?

Unfortunately, in the world that we inhabit, it seems almost impossible to be 100% private, unless you were born and raised on a remote island the government has no idea about.

However, there are some measures we can take to protect our privacy when using a voice-operated digital assistant, such as Alexa:

  1. Mute Alexa when not in use

It’s the best way to stop the device from eavesdropping to your private conversations, even if they are stored for roughly one minute.

  1. Easily delete Alexa uncomfortable voice recordings

On this topic, here is an excerpt from Amazon’s Alexa & Alexa Device FAQs: “you can delete all voice recordings associated with your account for each of your Alexa-enabled products, by selecting the applicable product at the Manage Your Content and Devices page at www.amazon.com/mycd or contacting customer service.”

  1. Turn off purchasing

We have often iterated and reiterated the importance of making secure payments on a device with an active VPN such as CyberGhost installed.

Due to the fact that it currently lacks voice recognition, Alexa can interpret television ads as orders, so it’s best to turn it off and choose a more secure payment option.

Here’s what the above-mentioned FAQ advises us on the topic: „visit Settings/Voice Purchasing in your Alexa App to turn off purchasing by voice from Amazon. You can also require an optional confirmation code that Alexa will ask you to say out loud when you want to place an order from Amazon.”

Here's how to delete your #Google voice search records and use #Amazon #Alexa privately: Click to Tweet

Bonus: how to delete your Google voice search records

Alexa is not the only one listening on its users.

Google records many of the conversations that people have around its products if they have (or have ever had) an Android phone with Google’s “OK Google” voice-control system. Thus, the page should show a list of every command one has ever given it – replete with a little play button next to it.

To erase these recordings, simply go to to Google’s history page and look at the long list of recordings. The company has a specific audio page and another for activity on the web, which will show you everywhere Google has a record of you being on the internet.

You can also turn Voice Activity off. However, this doesn’t stop Google storing your recordings, but it means they get kept with an anonymous identifier, and can’t be easily linked back to an account.

About the author

Corina Dobre
Corina Dobre

A professional wordsmith, Corina has improved her writing skills through extensive experiences in journalism, advertising and marketing. Curious by nature, she enjoys learning foreign languages and discovering everything, as well as everyone around her.

17 Comments

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  • The blog post is titled “Hello, is there anyone NOT listening?”, which is most certainly 100% true.

    This was posted 5 days ago, however, in the past couple of hours I have been researching into converting my home to a smart home. In particular, smart devices controllable via Alexa. I have had CyberGhost VPN activated on my PC during this time.

    I have just received an email from CyberGhost which links to the blog post. Coincidence I think not.

    • Hi Ben! This coincidence is indeed amusing. Rest assured, however, that we sent the email deliberately 5 days after posting the article, simply because we thought that people would be more interested in reading our article when they have more time (in the weekend). Cheers & stay private!

      • Thank you for your response Corina, it certainly was amusing! In this day and age everyone needs to take caution and be paranoid in order to maintain privacy.

        I have an idea, and that is all it is at the moment. Some people use virtual machines for testing the maliciousness of software. Could there be a container created for use with Alexa? Potentially a Raspberry Pi WiFi repeater that Alexa connects to, which filters out any bad activity?

        Please let me know of your thoughts.

        • Hi again, Ben! I have asked a tech-savvier colleague for an opinion concerning the solution that you proposed, while also doing a bit of research online and here is what we came across. As it turns out, all voice queries made through Amazon Alexa are encrypted as they are transmitted to the servers. This implies that a third party (such as the WiFi repeater that you suggested), used between the Amazon voice-controlled digital assistant and the server, will not know what to filter and therefore become ineffective in its purpose. So… our thoughts on this? As we mentioned in the article, willingly installing a full-time listening device in our own homes is probably not a good idea. Then again, there are so many other devices with incorporated microphones, so what’s one more?

          • Hi Corina, apologies for my tardy response. Thank you for looking into that for me – this makes sense. Ha! You’re right. Ignorance is bliss…

  • It’s good to be paranoid I insist, apart from your great service there are also two very handy app’s on the playstore, namely ‘Camera Block’ and ‘Microphone Block’, which shut down the named functions when not in use.
    Trust being the key part in bringing any device which can do any of these thing’s including much more into your private home, however inane or uninteresting you may think your everyday conversations or activities maybe to the outside world, is still your personal information, if you had different stranger’s in your house all the time and think of your device not unlike one, how awkward and intrusive would that feel if you imagined your device’s as governmental spies sat there?
    To many may laugh and say you are going ‘overboard’, however, even the German Stasi have been quoted as saying ‘we wish we had the tool’s available now back then, it would have made our job’s much easier’.
    Only because of Edward Snowden’s bravery were we let into our government’s little secret of mass surveillance, turned inwards on the people with ‘terrorism’ given as a ultra lame excuse, but with the ‘i’ve got nothing to hide’ mentality, the masses keep on willingly bringing little spie device’s into their everyday lives without a thought, and maybe some activities you said or did ten maybe twenty year’s into the future from the past which you thought nothing of importance but is now made illegal, so you can be turned into an informer or thrown into jail because what you say is causing government or someone in the government embarrassment , will it then be understood?
    Without privacy we don’t have freedom of language, which in turn freedom of thought, because controlled language changes how a person thinks so is saying, and with these freedoms clearly not being valued as they should by the masses, it slowly slips away and is a slap in the face to the countless hundreds of millions who have fought for this, or died under the name of communism or fascism in history or even round the globe now.
    This may sound again to many over dramatic, but it all starts with privacy and the loss of that, then the slow decline begins into a country not unlike North Korea, if you have studied that country you will know exactly what I mean as millions are so fearful of their so-called ‘Dear leader’ even living in abject poverty, the fear instilled in it’s people is so great that speaking bad of him as his obligatory picture stares down on everyone in their homes, keeps them all silent of dissent knowing the punishment, and that is even without none of the technologies we are fortunate enough to pocess in our home’s.
    If you are not making use of the simple easy to use privacy tool’s, such as a VPN (Virtual Privacy Network), which will disguise your identity online and also give you access to media from other countries, then you are doing yourself a very big disservice indeed, the Chinese government hates these services so much they attempt to shut them down at every opportunity, and a few encryption services in the US have been forced to close down because the owner was unwilling to give the encryption key to the FBI so they could read the secure emails, so making his service worthless and had to unfortunately throw in the towel, because of the demands.
    Now that the authority of the international server’s domain has been moved over to each percipient country, under the Obama administration just before he leaves office inside of the US, so negating the former constitutional right’s which was afforded every other country aswell. With government’s dislike of these services, in the foreseeable future I can see government’s making some inane law under the terrorism act attempting to outlaw perfectly rightful services, so individuals rights to remain anonymous on the internet will be taken forever.
    To finish, if your government hates it then this is the biggest message that can be sent that it should be used, as technology advance’s at such a rapid pace your trust should diminish in those stranger’s who have access to your private information, how do you really know if one minute of information is just kept? It could be all the time your talking for all you know! Or for that matter any promises made in the T&C’s, always be sceptical and weary of any promises or devices made or on your person, and keep yourself safe, your personal information private, by using as many privacy tools you you feel comfortable with so start with service’s like this one advertised on here, while they are still available to the public.

    • Hi Jay and thank you for the substantial and well-documented comment! We could’t agree more with your conclusion, it’s always best to treat apps and devices with skepticism, which does not of course exclude trying them if they are a necessity. However, online privacy should always be regarded as our most prized possession. Cheers and it would be a pleasure to have you visit our blog regularly!

    • I cannot imagine that the “German Stasi” have been “quoted” as saying anything since 1989 when they ceased to exist. Perhaps an ex member could have said something like this, but as someone who lives in Germany, my experience is that very few who worked for or with the Stasi are happy to admit it these days. That is, however, neither here nor there.

      What I did have, after reading this interesting article and the comments thereto, was a funny thought on how I might go about spying on my people if I were a ruthless dictator who wanted to gather intel on my people. I would spread as much propaganda as possible stating how terrible the regime is and how they cannot be trusted. I would let everyone know that the internet and smart devices are tapped into by the secret police and basically make everyone as paranoid as possible. Then I would start my own VPN service under a fake company (perhaps even in another country) offering full secrecy from the “spying government” and have all the scared rabbits freely and unwittingly send me all the information that they want to keep secret. 😉 Of course I have an evil dictator’s mind and would never suggest that a “real Government” would ever come up with such an evil plan :-))))

      • There are websites with people who try to vette VPN companies. One can never be positive but they try their best to root out real VPNS vs honeypot VPNS. Some VPNS have such ridiculously low lifetime subscription fees that it’s hard to believe they could make money if owned by a private individual. Open source or distributed types like tor are widely recognized as not being ran by the government but no one really knows for sure. All you can really do is ask yourself if what you are doing could get you in trouble if the VPN you are using turns out to be ran by a government agency. For instance using a VPN to get around a country block so you can watch YouTube or watch shows on Netflix you can’t normally, is unlikely to land you in prison.

  • Hello. I agree with the article wholeheartedly.

    But my comment is to ask you to please visit your own blog with Chrome on android. There is a bug on your site that causes the page to go “to the top” pretty much any time I take my finger off the screen. It took forever to read the article because every time I scrolled down and then lifted my finger, the page would go back to the top.

    It got so bad at the bottom of the page I couldn’t even leave a comment. I had to use a different browser.

    I know this is not a chrome issue since this blog is the only site that does it.

    Edit: it just did it again while I was scrolling through this text box to leave my comment, this is on the stock Samsung browser.

  • Another off-topic comment, but I’m just curious…
    While your server park offers countries from Asia, Europe, North America, and Oceania, it does not offer any from Africa, Central America, and South America. I see you are busy constantly adding new servers to existing countries (which is great!), but are there any plans to add new countries to your server park? I would especially appreciate locations in South America.

    Thanks!

    • Hi, Max! Thanks for your message. Indeed, we are adding new servers to existing countries because the demand increased there. So in order for us to keep the same quality of service we need to keep up with the demand. If we have new subscribers that use certain servers we need to add more so everyone can enjoy a good speed. As for the servers on other continents, we previously had servers in Mexico and our intention is to find new ones there, but due to our strict privacy and no logs policy, it’s hard to find a trustworthy partner. Not to mention that in certain countries the infrastructure does not allow us to find the technology we request for our servers. Hopefully things will change in the future and we’ll be able to expand easier. We have a dedicated team that is constantly looking into the server park expansion and new options and possibilities in new countries. Thanks for your feedback and we hope that we’ll be able to meet your requirements very soon. Cheers!

      • Thank you very much for your response! Of course I understand that you need to keep up with the demand and provide more servers where they are needed first, and I appreciate that you take your time looking for data centers that meet your high standards. You are a very trustworthy VPN provider and I’m very pleased with your service!

        However, as a suggestion, instead of looking for new data centers, might it not be possible to buy new/use some of your servers from your already trusted data centers, but make their location appear in a different country? I’ve heard of an unsafe competitor that does this using virtualized IPs; they offer a “fake” North Korea VPN server that makes you appear in North Korea, but in reality the server is hosted in a data center located in the UK. I’m not exactly sure how this works, but apparently it has to do something with associating an IP from a different country with a server from another country. Couldn’t you make use of the same technique and offer many more locations that way? You would also not need to worry about the lack of infrastructure in a poor country, since the servers are not actually based there in reality. Just my thoughts. Thanks for taking your time to read this. 🙂

        • Hi Max! Thank you for taking the time to offer us your valuable advice on this matter. We passed it on to our technical team and they will look into the matter further. Cheers and keep on surfing the free web!

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