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How Our Smart Devices Are Listening

Your Privacy Online

How much privacy can we reasonably expect? In the 21st Century, new challenges have made people more inclined to give up privacy than years before. The reason being that many feel that in order to be protected the release of some privacy must be a trade off. This is why in 2001 the United States was able to pass The Patriot Act in order to gain surveillance on those who may want to commit violent and unspeakable acts. Different versions of the act were enacted as recently as 2020 as the feeling of security seemed to be one of the top priorities of most Americans.

While it is true that many are willing to give up unrestricted privacy in the name of keeping themselves and others safe, the same cannot be said about companies gaining access to personal information. The primary culprit of those concerned with privacy issues usually are social media sites such as Facebook. This makes sense as in 2018, Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerburg testified to Congress about a data sharing scandal the company had. Around the same time in 2018 Pew Research released a poll stating that a majority of Americans did not feel confident that social media sites would protect their data. Facebook even states on its own data policy that, “We want our advertising to be as relevant and interesting as the other information you find on our Services. With this in mind, we use all of the information we have about you to show you relevant ads.”

So why not just sign out of that Facebook profile? The problem with that is that Facebook can continue to track you even when you are not online. Many news reports have noted that Facebook uses tracking cookies implemented on each user’s device to monitor online activity even if the user is not currently using Facebook. A California judge in 2017 even dismissed a lawsuit against Facebook for doing this. So it seems that if you are a Facebook user there must be an expectation that your online activity is being tracked and the company reserves the right to perhaps share some of that data with advertisers to help them create a valuable ad experience for the users. That may make sense from the business perspective, but the idea of that surely would make many uncomfortable with constantly being tracked. Let's take a closer look of how our smart devices are listening.

Our Digital Friends

Okay so maybe my online activity is being monitored, but at least I am free to speak in the real world without being tracked! Well many people began to get skeptical when three friends named Siri, Alexa and Google were introduced to social circles starting in 2010, 2014 and 2016 respectively. Siri, commonly known as a feature of the Apple iPhone and Alexa, a feature installed on Amazon Echos and Google Personal Assistant are virtual assistants designed to give users voice control in navigating their apps or getting information. You can ask Siri who won the Lakers game or to set a reminder to meet with your boss on Zoom at four and she will tell you and perform that task. You can ask Alexa what the weather forecast is or to add taco shells to your shopping list and she will tell you and add them onto your Amazon account. You can ask Google to tell you a joke or shut the lights off in your house and it will tell you a lame one and shut the lights off (if properly connected to your home). The features are used by a vast amount of Americans. There are currently 81.5 million users using Google Assistant, 77.6 million using Siri and 71.6 million using Amazon Alexa.

The scary thing to many people is that they feel like these devices are constantly listening to you. The most intimate conversations that you share with friends or family could be listened to, recorded and if there is a data breach personal information can be taken and shared with those who may not need them or worse use them for harm. Some more extreme conspiracy theorists have even said that these companies could be profiting off of this suspected eavesdropping and could be selling secrets to other companies for advertising, the US government or even foreign governments for the purchasing party’s own benefit. Since there is so much information and misinformation out on the web it is important to know what is true and untrue about our smart devices listening to us.

Hey Siri, can you hear me?

Let’s start out with the question that everyone is asking first. Are our smart assistants always listening to us? The answer is a simple yes. How else would they know when to respond when we ask them to do a task. The prospect is scary to some, but to perhaps alleviate some fears the knowledge of wake words is crucial to understand. Your smart devices are always listening to you, but data collection only starts when your device's wake word is heard. If I want to turn on the kitchen lights in my house I cannot simply say, “Kitchen light on!” I must utter the word to awake my Google Smart Assistant and instead say “Okay Google” before asking my smart assistant to turn on my kitchen lights. At the point where I say “Okay Google” my Google Assistant starts recording and data is collected and stored. Some other woke words include “Hey Siri!” for your iPhone or “Alexa” for your Amazon Echo device. The device is designed to stop recording once you stop speaking at which point the recording is supposed to be safely secured. In the past Google devices would constantly record and Amazon considered making their devices record at all times, but around 2019 wake words were required to commence recording on a vast majority of virtual assistants.

Accidents Happen

We’ve all had incidents where our devices mishear us. Maybe a word gets misunderstood and your device gives your different information than what you wanted. It surely seems harmless and you can just repeat the instructions or look up the information by hand. However, the real problem exists when a device mistakenly senses a wake word. In 2018 an Oregon Family had their Alexa woken because the device thought it heard the word Alexa and started recording a conversation between a woman and her husband. Alexa then thought during the conversation an instruction was given to send a message. Alexa asked out loud to whom and then heard a contact in the woman’s phone. The Alexa then thought it heard a command to confirm sending a message and at that point everything that the woman and husband had said in their private conversation had been sent to a random contact. “I felt invaded,” she told KIRO-TV. “A total privacy invasion. Immediately, I said, ‘I’m never plugging that device in again because I can’t trust it.’” This is an extreme example of an error of a device, but it delivers a valuable lesson. Devices can make mistakes and it could cost you some privacy.

Furthermore, even though data is meant to be stored, there are many talented hackers that may be able to access private information that companies did not intend to share. In September 2018, mere months after Zuckerburg gave testimony to Congress about data security Facebook experienced a large data breach in which more than 50 million Facebook accounts were compromised as another party was able to gain access to personal information. Facebook’s parent company Meta was forced to pay hundreds of millions of dollars for the data breach. If a data breach can happen to the world’s social media leader it could certainly happen to any company.

How Companies Use Recordings

So if companies claim they are not selling your voice recordings to anyone then why are companies that produce these virtual assistants recording and storing data at all. The answer by most companies is simple. They want to make their products better. “Any data that is saved is used to improve Siri,” Apple said. “Alexa is always getting smarter, which is only possible by training her with voice recordings to better understand requests, provide more accurate responses, and personalize the customer experience,” Beatrice Geoffrin, director of Alexa privacy, said in a statement. The recordings also help Alexa learn different accents and understand queries about recurring events such as the Olympics, she said.” Another use of these recordings happens to be because of the hottest topic in the tech world recently which is the use of artificial intelligence. The simplest way on how to have artificial intelligence become more and more effective is to constantly feed data through the program. Artificial intelligence learns more as they are guided through a series of commands and information. Being exposed to real life conversation patterns helps artificial intelligence have the ability to complete more and more tasks each day.

In addition to benefiting the companies themselves, recordings made by smart devices have also been used to help justice systems. There have certainly been several cases where recordings from virtual assistants needed to be subpoenaed in order to have evidence to prove or disprove crimes. Ring, an Amazon smart doorbell that records motion at doors, also gave a record amount of video footage to courts in 2021. It seems that companies have better use for data other than selling it to private companies or governments for mere profit.


So what is the message of this at the end of the day? Are the conspiracy theorists right and are companies like Amazon, Google and Apple constantly recording us and selling our information about our personal lives to people who want to use that information to reveal our darkest secrets? The answer is no. Are companies that produce smart devices and virtual assistants recording us when we use them and using that information for the benefit of their interests? The answer is yes. Can accidents happen where information that was not supposed to be shared gets shared? The answer is always yes. Like with every technology since the dawn of time nothing is perfect. In Mark Zuckerburg’s testimony to Congress he said on about 45 occasions that users have control over the data they produce and they always have the choice to not use these new technologies if they do not feel comfortable. While that may be a simple solution and technically true, the fact of the matter is we are living in a very connected world and that many people do not even personally know anyone without a smartphone. In 2023 many may just have to accept the fact that we are constantly producing data, most of the time it will never be critiqued, but we can never be certain that it will never get in the wrong hands.


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