If Santa left an Amazon Echo or Google Home in your stocking over Christmas, you might want to take a few precautions to make sure he isn't using them to snoop on who's naughty and who's nice.
The Echo and Home both work in a similar manner. They constantly listen for a trigger phrase, "Hey Alexa" or "OK Google", respectively. Once activated, they record the following voice query, then upload it to the cloud. Once on Amazon's or Google's servers, the recording is analyzed, and an appropriate response is returned.
Each boasts a roster of unique features to entice shoppers. The $130 Google Home [pictured above] can sync with any device that supports Google Cast, like Android smartphones and Chromecasts. The $180 Echo relies on Bluetooth, which makes it more compatible with smart home devices and wearables.
Differences aside, both share one major downside: privacy. Both Alexa and the Google Voice Assistant are constantly listening to everyone within microphone range for input by default. That core function broaches a series of privacy concerns:
The microphones are always listening unless physically muted.
The voice assistants cannot differentiate between different people.
The devices upload recordings and store them on cloud servers.
Data collected from recordings and subsequent analyses is used to provide a customized experience and, in all likelihood, targeted advertising.
The device's location is used to give more accurate searches and, again, targeted advertisements.
Data may be shared with third parties unknown to the user.
All of the data passed between an Echo or Home and its corresponding servers is encrypted, so security is not so much an issue. A hacker won't be able to decipher any intercepted communication.
The larger concern is privacy, rather than security. Talking to an Echo or Home requires trust in Amazon and Google. Beyond that, it in turn requires trust in third-party developers that create all of those integrated apps.It's not just companies that could abuse your data, however. Echo and Home users must also trust their family members and house guests. Even if the line of communication is safe from hackers and government agencies, voice assistants are still riddled with unforeseen vulnerabilities.
Making Alexa More Private
When it comes to the Amazon Echo, the price of convenience is privacy (plus the $180 price tag). It's impossible to use one for anything other than a paperweight without giving up some of your private information. Despite that, there are a handful of precautions owners can take to make Alexa a bit more tight-lipped:
Mute the Echo when not in use. A physical mute button is located at the top of the device. The "always listening" microphone will be disabled until physically unmuted.
Delete old recordings. Every Echo owner presumably has an Amazon account. Find the web-based dashboard under "Manage my device" on the Amazon web page. Users can delete individual queries or wipe their entire search history all at once.
Amazon recommends against doing this, however, as it will result in a less personalized experience and poorly tailored responses.
Refrain from connecting important accounts to your Echo. Don't give Alexa access to anything with which money can be spent or sensitive information could be divulged. The Internet is already piling up with complaints about children using Alexa to shop online unbeknownst to their parents, for example.
In Alexa's configuration, set up an "end of request" tone that will make a sound to let you know the Echo has stopped listening for commands and queries. For now, that's about all you can do to make an Echo more private. It won't prevent Amazon from collecting and analyzing your personal information, then in turn using that information to recommend products and serve ads.
Still, it will make you more difficult for third parties to profile.
Making Google Home More Private
Google is the master of gathering data on people who use its services, and Home is no different. Similar to Alexa, Google Home collects and analyzes your data to offer more personalized results and targeted advertisements. You can stop it from collecting quite so much, but it's hardly an airtight fix and will cause Google Home to function at less than its full potential.
Use the touch panel on top of Google Home to mute the microphone. Until reactivated, doing so stops the device from recording anything.
Use your Google account settings to pick and choose what information Google can know about you. You can also delete old search queries and commands. Navigate to the My Activity dashboard to manage everything from location services to searches to advertisements. To help sift through the cornucopia of settings, see Comparitech's tutorials on deleting Google account history and prevent Google tracking.
Refrain from linking important accounts to Google Home. Keep anything dealing with money or private information on devices that only you have access to. Google Home cannot differentiate the owner's voice from anyone else, which leaves it vulnerable to abuse.
Stay alert of the LED lights that change color when Google Home is listening. It could be triggered by accident and upload an unintentional recording. Even if you take the nuclear option and wipe the slate clean on your Google account, Google still collects some information about you. That includes service-related details about your account like which Google products you use and when, the devices you connect with, and what language you speak.
If location services are denied access, Google will simply approximate the user's location using an IP address. Note that while Google Home and Amazon Echo are both constantly listening by default, not everything you say is uploaded to the cloud. They listen in short bursts of a few seconds until the trigger phrase is spoken. Only then is any information sent to Google or Amazon servers. Otherwise, no information leaves the device.
Voice-Activated Mute, Please
As it stands, both Echo and Home must be physically muted by the user in order for them to stop listening. It's not difficult, but it's not the most convenient way to disable the microphone on an otherwise fully voice-activated device. We would enthusiastically welcome a voice command that could mute the microphone, rather than a physical input. If Amazon or Google implemented such a command, keeping private conversations private would be a much simpler matter.
By their very nature, modern voice assistants are not private. They rely on the cloud to access applications and analyze recordings -- something too complex and resource-consuming to do on a tabletop device. The $130 or $180 you pay is for the hardware, but the voice assistant service is paid for with privacy. Perhaps one day we'll see a subscription model that requires a monthly payment and doesn't leverage user data to serve advertisements and promote products. Until then, there's no getting around the fact that using a Google Home or Amazon Echo, even with all of the advice given in this article, sacrifices privacy. If you can't stomach that, then the only advice to give is this: don't use it.