Are humans listening to my smart speaker recordings?

Most of us by now are probably familiar with smart speakers, or digital assistants, that help us complete tasks without having to type in a command. The most well-known examples of these are Siri and Alexa, which work using voice-enabled features and allow us to search the web or communicate with other smart devices, such as lighting and entertainment systems. And whilst these assistants give us greater convenience in our day-to-day lives, a report by Bloomberg recently discovered that Amazon, Apple and Google all employ staff who listen to customer voice recordings from these devices, raising privacy concerns for users.

A common fear shared by many is that smart speakers are recording everything that is said in the home. This is not exactly true. Smart speakers have to ‘hear’ conversations otherwise they would not be able to detect a wake word such as “Alexa”, “Ok, Google” or “Siri”. For this to be possible, all major home assistants record and analyze short snippets of audio. However, if the wake word is not ‘heard’ the audio is discarded and it can never be accessed by a human listening in.

The speakers do, nonetheless, ‘listen’ to a conversation if the wake word is detected. In this case the audio is kept, and recording continues so that the request can be sent to a voice recognition service, where it may be heard by a person.

Why are these clips being listened to by real people?

The main reason for this is to help the device learn how-to pick-up people’s requests. At Amazon, for example, the recordings are listened to by real people, transcribed, annotated and then fed back into the Echo’s software. This is part of an effort to eliminate gaps in Alexa’s understanding of human speech and help it better respond to commands in the future. It is also important to note that employees do not have direct access to information that can identify the person or account in a recording and this is the same at all major companies.

Because these devices are used across the globe, where millions of different expressions and idioms can mean different things, smart speakers can get easily confused. Therefore, to ensure that voice assistants can respond effectively to this wide variation of speech, transcribing areas where the assistant is having difficulty is one way to improve the service you receive. However, privacy is paramount to us all and we know that being able to prevent this process is also important knowledge to have, should you decide to do so.

Can you stop human reviewers listening to voice clips?

The answer to this is largely no if you still want to use the voice capabilities on your smart phone or digital assistant. However, depending on which device you have, you can turn off the ability for the assistant to listen to all audio commands in the future. In particular:

Amazon Alexa’s privacy settings do not let you opt out of voice recording or human review, but you can stop your recordings being used to “help develop new features”. You can disable this from the Amazon app: tap the menu button, select Alexa Account, choose Alexa privacy and then tap ‘manage how your data improves Alexa.’

Google’s Assistant on your Google home can be switched off simply using the command “Ok Google, Turn off the microphone.” There is also a mic button on the back that allows you to do this manually.

To disable Google’s Assistant on your phone you have two options.The assistant can be prevented from listening for commands from the Google app. Select the Settings option, Google Assistant, Settings, Devices and tap Phone. You’ll see the option to turn off Access with Voice Match, which is the feature that’s always listening for “Ok Google.” With Voice Match turned off, voice commands still work, but only on your device’s home screen. If you want to go a step further, you can disable the Google Assistant altogether, but this will also disable accessing its functionality by any means (not just voice).

As a second option you can deny Google any microphone permission. Find the Settings icon on your Android smartphone, tap Apps & Notifications, then select Google. Once you’re on the App info screen for Google, tap Permissions. Hit the toggle switch next to Microphone, then Deny anyway.

Apple also allows you to turn off Siri’s ability to record audio. If you head to the Settings menu on your device and select Siri & Search you will see an option called ‘Listen for Hey Siri’ and ‘Press Home for Siri’. If you switch both of these off it will disable Siri from any audio capabilities.

For some this information may seem unsettling, however it should hopefully reassure you that it would be easy to detect if a speaker was continuously sending entire conversations back to a remote server for analysis. Security researchers have also not found evidence to suggest this is happening.

If you would like more information on this topic, please see our previous post on smart speaker security or leave a comment below.