Are Alexa, Google & Siri Eavesdropping on You?

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Amazon and Google have both come out with wildly popular digital assistants that are loosely known as smart speakers. Amazons is called Alexa and Googles is called, well, Google.

“Hey Alexa, would you say you are smarter than Google?”

Apple’s digital assistant is Siri which can be found on all new Apple devices, including the HomePod, a less popular version of Alexa. For the time being, Siri isn’t quite as smart or popular as the other kids, so I’m leaving her out of this conversation for now. Sorry Siri.

Just the fact that Alexa, Google and any digital assistant answer you the minute you mention their name shows that they are ALWAYS LISTENING! Once you have triggered them, they are recording the requests you make just as if you had typed them into a search engine. So they know when you order pizza, what songs you like and what’s on your calendar for the week. They can also have access to your contacts, your location and even combine that information with your buying and surfing habits on their website.  

To be fair, Amazon and Google both say that their digital assistants only process audio after we trigger them with a phrase like “Hey, Alexa” or “OK, Google”. So they aren’t listening to EVERY conversation… YET. Why do I say, YET? Because the New York Times dug a little deeper and took a look at the patents that Amazon and Google are filing for future makeovers of their digital assistants. In one set of patent applications, Amazon describes, and I’m quoting here, a “voice sniffer algorithm” that can analyze audio in realtime when it hears words like “love”, “bought” or “dislike”. It went on to illustrate how a phone call between two friends could result in one receiving an offer for the San Diego Zoo and the other seeing an ad for a Wine club based on the passive conversation that the two of them were having.

In other words, no one had invited Alexa to the conversation, but she, or he, or they were there listening, analyzing and selling your thoughts anyway. That’s just creepy! It gets worse. The Times found another patent application showing how a digital assistant could “determine a speaker’s MOOD using the volume of the user’s voice, detected breathing rate, crying and so forth as well as determine their medical condition based on detected coughing, sneezing and so forth”. And so forth, and so forth. To that, I have only two words: Big Brother!

Let’s call these future digital assistants exactly what they are: audio-based spyware used for profit-making surveillance that treat us users like tasty soundbites at the advertising watering hole. Our private conversations will one-day drive their advertisements, profits and product development. They are data mining what we say, turning it into a quantitative model and selling it to anyone who will buy it. Well, I don’t buy it. And I won’t buy one, until I am sure, in writing, that it’s not eavesdropping on everything said in my home.

Granted, these are all proposed changes to be made in the future, but they are a clear sign of where smart speakers and digital assistants are going. Their intention is to eavesdrop on you. Your One Minute Mission is to ask yourself how comfortable you are having a corporation like Amazon or Google eventually hearing, analyzing and sharing your private conversations.

I have to be forthright with you, many people will say they don’t care, and this really is their choice. We are all allowed to make our own choices when it comes to privacy. But the vitally important distinction here is that you make a choice, an educated, informed choice, and intentionally invite Alexa or Google into your private conversations.

I hope this episode of Sileo On Security has helped you do just that.