Your Smart Speakers are Listening to You
Your friendly neighborhood smart speaker can do everything from dictate recipes to control door locks. On the less positive side, it’s also capable of eavesdropping on your conversations and activities. What’s a privacy-concerned citizen to do?
To better predict your whims, your smart speaker logs your voice commands in cloud storage. If that makes you uncomfortable, then you can browse through the information that your gadget has saved—and delete it. In this guide, we’ll explain how to manage the data collection of three of the most popular smart speakers: Amazon Echo, Google Home, and Apple Homepod.
The Echo smart speaker, powered by Amazon’s artificially intelligent assistant Alexa, keeps a digital ear out for its wake phrase, “Hey Alexa.” When it hears these words, it starts recording the sounds that come next—your spoken commands—and then it saves these snippets in the cloud.
You can’t turn off the Echo’s recording habit, because it’s a fundamental part of how the smart speaker functions. But if it really makes you uncomfortable, then manually make the speaker stop listening when you’re not using it: Tap the microphone button on the top of the device, and it will stop listening for your next “hey Alexa.”
To review and potentially delete the snippets that the Echo has been saving, you have to go through the Alexa app (for Android and iOS) or the Amazon website. Let’s start with the former.
When you open the Alexa app on your phone, the front page displays a list of saved words and phrases that you’ve directed at your Echo speaker. Amazon provides these entries so you can re-run any past commands—and also to train the natural-language processing software. To make its AI assistant more accurate and responsive, Amazon encourages users get to provide feedback: If you tap More on any entry, you can choose Yes to indicate that the text matches what you said or No to tell Alexa that it misinterpreted your speech.
However, you didn’t open the app to train Alexa; you want to delete its saved data. This is not as straightforward as it seems. Amazon lets you easily erase an entry from the front screen of the app—just tap More > Remove card—but this will not delete the recording from Amazon’s servers. Instead, to completely get rid of the saved data, you have to go through a more complicated process. Tap the menu button (three horizontal lines) on the top left, then go to Settings > History. From this page, you can select any voice input and play back the audio clip. If you’ve built up a long history, you can sort entries with the Filter by Date option at the top of the screen. Finally, to erase an entry from both the app and from Amazon’s database, select Delete voice recordings at the bottom of the screen.
You can also delete all your recordings at once through the Amazon website. Sign into your account and head to Account & Lists > Your Content and Devices > Your Devices. On this page, click the button next to your Echo and select Manage voice recordings. From here, you can click the Delete button to wipe everything you’ve ever asked Alexa from the record. The website doesn’t offer the same sort of granular control that the app does, but if you want to quickly arrive at a blank slate, this is how to do it.
Google, like Amazon, states that its smart speakers don’t permanently record audiountil you wake them with the “Ok Google” command. Once you do, the speaker does keep a copy of what you say next, which helps Google improve its voice recognition and comprehension.
Unlike the Echo, however, the Google Home will stop logging your voice commands if you change a couple settings. To stop your smart speaker from recording your orders, log into your Google account and visit the Activity controls webpage. Then toggle off the Voice & Audio Activity switch.
As for the data that Google has already recorded, you can check on and modify it through the Google Home app (for Android and iOS) or the Google website.
To check out recordings through the app, open Google Home, tap the menu button (three horizontal lines) on the top left, and choose My Activity. The next screen displays all your recent commands, whether you issued them to the smart speaker itself or to the Google Assistant app on your phone. Tap on any entry to view more details: the specific words, when and where you said them, to which device you spoke, and what response you received. To delete a recording, tap the more button (three vertical dots) to an entry’s top right and select Delete.
You can perform a similar review online. Sign into your account, head to the Personal info & privacy page, and click Go to My Activity. This will bring up a log of your activities on multiple Google services, including your browsing behavior on Chrome and your watch history on YouTube. To isolate Google Home searches, click Filter by date and product, untick all the entries except Assistant, and click the search button at the top. You can also add a date filter if you have a specific time in mind. Again, you can erase individual entries by clicking the more button and picking Delete. Through the website, you can also delete all your past voice commands in bulk: Click Delete activity by > Delete by date > All time. Then hit the All products drop-down menu and choose Assistant from the list. Finally, select Delete, and a confirmation window will pop up. Click Delete again to erase everything.
Apple HomePod owners don’t need to worry as much about privacy. Although Apple does record “hey Siri” voice commands, it analyzes and then erases these logs instead of storing them until you delete them. However, this does mean that you can’t go back into your history to check out what you’ve asked your speaker in the past.