There’s been a lot of concern lately about whether or not digital voice assistants such as Amazon Alexa, Google Echo, and Siri are spying on their users. The biggest culprit, Amazon Alexa, is reportedly listening to everything going on around it. Amazon themselves even recently confirmed that they keep transcripts and voice recordings indefinitely. These recordings are only deleted if they are deleted by the user. Most users don’t even know they are being recorded though, and even less know how to remove those recordings.
The confirmation from Amazon came after Delaware Democratic Senator Chris Coons wrote to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, requesting further information about how their Alexa devices handle privacy and data security.
Amazon also came under significant fire after CNET reported that not only does Alexa keep voice recordings, but it also keeps records of voice transcriptions, which it uses to improve its AI. There’s no option to delete those transcripts, by the way.
For their part, Amazon has denied claims that Alexa violates online privacy protection laws, but they did also issue some new Alexa commands that allow users the option to delete voice recordings without having to go through their website.
Apple also faced pressure from Congress to explain how Siri was able to hear people if “she” wasn’t always listening and how they handled user data. Apple CEO Tim Cook received a letter from the US House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee asking him about this after Apple cracked down on app developers sharing location data and violating privacy policies.
The letter asked a plethora of questions of Apple, including how they collect and use audio recordings, how they manage third parties accessing consumer data, and more. Apple’s response effectively boils down to “We aren’t Google or Facebook.” They claim that the consumer is not their product.
Apple’s response went into specifics on how iPhones can respond to voice commands without having to eavesdrop on users. It uses short buffers that are stored locally on the phone and wake up Siri if there’s a high probability that someone gave the “Hey, Siri” command. This buffer is a short piece of audio that is continuously being recorded over, so it’s difficult to claim that Siri is in fact, “always listening.” Apple also says that these buffers aren’t sent to them, and any voice information that is sent to them is done so anonymously. They might hear your voice, but they have no idea who you are. Or so they claim.
So, if you’re wondering if your digital assistant is spying on you, the answer is somewhat “yes and no.”
All digital assistants have the capability to be spying on you. They are all listening in, and some of them may even be recording you. There’s undeniable proof that Amazon does this at least. But, it’s hard to say if they are actively spying on you or not. They’re listening, but they might not be spying.