I was at my wife’s holiday dinner about a month ago and a conversation came up about Google Home and Amazon “Alexa” (a.k.a “Echo”). Mind you, the rest of the people there are not as technically savvy as my wife and me. Just about everybody had an aversion to these devices. One person at the table said “Dan, they’re always listening right?” I said Google isn’t always listening. The device is listening for the “Okay Google” key phrase inside of the device, then sends what it hears after the key phrase to Google.
Fear, Suspicion, and Worry
But of course, once fear has been set, it’s hard to allay it. These kind of articles make headlines in the news and don’t help the situation:
- Google admits its new smart speaker was eavesdropping on users
Google is permanently nerfing all Home Minis because mine spied on everything I said 24/7 [Update x2]
These first-off-the-line devices were given to reviewers. The update to the article says “…it ended up being a hardware defect in my Home Mini as well as an unspecified small number of others…”.
Sensationalism makes clicks and clicks make money.
Then there’s YouTube: Is Google always listening? The poster debunks himself in a comment to his own video: “The single biggest flaw in this video is that I am live streaming directly to YouTube which is of course recording and processing the microphone’s audio the entire time. … this was a poorly done experiment”. What? If that’s the case, why not just delete the bogus video?
A better, more scientific response to this video is: Is Google Always Listening? Better Testing which completely debunks the idea that Google Home/Assistant is always listening in order to serve better ads.
The sense everyone at the dinner had is that the devices are listening to their private, possibly sensitive conversations. The people that use Facebook were okay knowing what they post to Facebook is being read and digested by machines. Even with all of the recent Facebook scandals, they still use Facebook. I don’t anymore.
But let’s put this in some perspective. Let’s just say hypothetically that Google Home and Amazon Echo are listening all of the time to your most private conversations. These are devices that sit in one place in your home. You have to be talking around the device for it to hear you. It doesn’t have superpowers - it can’t hear you when you’re not speaking within range. But … your phone, on the other hand, is with you everywhere you go. Think about it for a second. Your phone has at least one microphone, probably two cameras, GPS, WiFi, and a host of other sensors.
Of course, some of the people at the dinner had their phones out on the table. If you stick with our hypothetical scenario for a second, those phones could have been listening to our entire conversation. They all have Google Assistant, Siri, Cortana, or Alexa. The phone could have been recording video, whether it was face up or down on the table. When you pick it up to look at it, it could have snapped a picture of your face.
What’s more likely is that you could have a malicious app installed on your phone. Given the correct permissions, any app can do all of that and more. Google Home and Amazon Echo have software that is locked-down. You cannot install apps on them, thus eliminating the malicious app problem on those devices.
How else can the phone invade your privacy? All of those sensors can detect if you’re moving, what direction you’re heading, what speed, your location, is it dark or light in the room. Have GPS turned off? Never fear. Your phone knows the WiFi hotspots around you - even if your not connected to them. They can be used to get a fairly accurate location. WiFi turned off? Your cellular connection can be used to obtain your location. This is tracked all of the time by the cell carriers.
Most every app on your phone hits the Internet to get or store information. Search for something? Play a game and save your place in it? Read some news? All of these are signals which, when used in aggregate, can be used to identify you and your behavior. Did you find it weird that an ad popped up for something you’re interested in, but you don’t ever remember searching for it? Your phone and Internet accounts have assigned an “advertising id” to you. It’s an anonymous identifier, but it can be used to collate all of your disparate signals and deduce what you might be interested in.
You’re taking those phone “assistants” with you everywhere you go. With them, your privacy is at much higher risk.
More privacy speciousness? I find it interesting that people cover the webcam on their laptop, but not the cameras on their phone. Isn’t it just as likely that someone is peering through your phone camera as it is your laptop? It’s also peculiar that the people covering their laptop camera don’t cover the microphone right next to it. There’s no good way to really cover-up the microphone and suppress sound. I guess it’s ok to be heard and not seen. Especially in a corporate environment.
My Dad is legally blind. It’s really amazing what he can do even though he has this disability. Over the years, he’s amassed a bunch of dedicated assistive devices from the VA. Each one has a special purpose and does the job. Speaking thermometers, magnifying viewers, speaking watch, etc. Last year we got him a Google Home. He loved it from the first minute. He can get the weather outside, sports scores, news, music, set timers and alarms, etc. He can even make phone calls on it. All just by asking a question. He was so excited about its potential to help him that he got another one next to his bed. Just with software, speech input, and speech output a whole world of possibilities is opened. As the software gets better, so will his life. This year we got him a new phone with Google Assistant built-in. Now the same paradigm he uses at home can be used wherever he is.
These assistants can help in all kinds of ways - for people with disabilities, or not:
- Using Home Assistant Devices to Help Kids With Learning Disabilities
- Home Assistants as Assistive Technology
I’ve raised privacy concerns here that might worry you. Should you throw out your phone or assistant device? No. Just be aware of what these devices can do:
- Data security & privacy on Google Home
- Alexa, Echo Devices, and Your Privacy
- How to Make Sure Alexa, Google Home Don’t Hear Too Much
If something still bothers you, let the companies know! They can’t fix it if they don’t know what’s wrong.
And just remember they’re watching you, no matter what you do.