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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.”
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.