Voice Controlled Device Controversy

Updated: Jan 8

Controversy over voice-controlled devices (such as Amazon's Alexa & the Google Home)

The Smart homes have arrived. Voice-controlled devices, such as Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Home assistant, allow you to coordinate the operation of your home, according to your liking.

Amazon’s first voice-controlled devices were the Echo and Echo dot. The Echo is a cylindrical speaker that you can place just about anywhere. The Echo Dot is a smaller, more cost-effective option. The software that controls these devices is called Alexa. Alexa is essentially a voice-operated assistant. Amazon has expanded their line of voice-enabled Alexa devices to reach hundreds of devices; everything from light-bulbs to home security.

Google Home functions similarly. Google has a lineup of Home devices. They range in size from desktop speaker, to minis. Google Home devices use a software called Google Assistant. You can operate your entire home by speaking aloud.

Once plugged in, your Amazon or Google device remains powered on continuously. The only way to “turn-off” your device is by unplugging the adapter directly from the wall.

Amazon and Google both state that their devices scan for wake words or key phrases while powered on. Voice-controlled devices are awakened by a user’s choice of words.

Dog Listening

Manufacturer settings are designed for the “wake” word with Amazon to be “Alexa”. So, if you’d like to strike up a conversation or have Alexa complete a command, simply address her by her name, “Alexa…”, followed by your request. You can change your wake word at any time. If “Alexa” is not your preference, you can change it to a word of your choice.

Google Home devices also operate similarly - they respond to wake words. Per manufacturer settings, Google responds to “OK Google” and “Hey Google”.

Recently, stories have been surfacing in the media that are creating quite a controversy for these voice-controlled devices. Several users have claimed that both, Alexa and Google Assistant, have recorded their conversations.

In one incident, a tech-savvy user stumbled upon several recordings that his new Google Home device had unknowingly recorded of him. The user had not used the wake phrase or initiated any request via Google Assistant. Google soon addressed this issue – stating it was a hardware flaw. Google then issued a system upgrade which is said to have corrected the issue.

Google claims that Home devices create snippets of recording. These snippets are searched for key phrases or wake words. If none are detected, then the snippets are deleted. If a key phrase or hot word is detected, the yellow light will appear; letting you know that your device is now recording you. Conversation data is saved in the Google servers until you choose to delete a recording. You can delete recordings at any time, from the “My Activity” page.

In a different incident, Amazon’s Alexa helped to save the life of a young woman in 2017. While a domestic dispute was taking place, Alexa picked up key phrases from the heated conversation. Alexa interpreted the key phrases as a command and called 911, as she saw only saw it as carrying out another request. This is proof that eavesdropping technology can help save lives.

If you’re still wary about your Amazon or Google device recording you, rest assure: you can adjust your privacy settings. For Amazon Alexa device owners: Changes can be made from your Amazon account page or Alexa app. First, select Settings, then select Alexa Privacy. Once you’re logged into your Amazon account, select Alexa Privacy settings page. The Alexa Privacy Settings page allows you to view previous recordings, manage devices and their history. You can sort by date range, select or delete recordings here, as well.

For Google Home device owners: changes can also be made to your recording history. First, go to My Activity. From there, you can go to Assistant History to manage recordings. This can also be done in the setup app or at myactivity.google.com.