29 Mar How Google and Amazon are ‘spying’ on you
You would be forgiven for thinking that your private conversations were just that, but two leading voice assistants are listening to everything you say, a new report claims.
Patent applications from Amazon and Google revealed how their Alexa and Voice Assistant powered smart speakers are ‘spying’ on you.
The study warns of an Orwellian future in which the gadgets eavesdrop on everything from confidential conversations to your toilet flushing habits.
Future versions of gadgets like the Echo and Home will use this data to try and sell you products, it says.
The findings were published in a report created by Santa Monica, California based advocacy group Consumer Watchdog.
It says patents reveal the devices’ possible use as surveillance equipment for massive information collection and intrusive digital advertising.
The study found that digital assistants can be ‘awake’ even when users think they aren’t listening.
The digital assistants are supposed to react only when they hear a so-called ‘wakeword.’
For Amazon’s Echo it’s ‘Alexa’ and for Google Home it’s ‘OK, Google.’
In fact, the devices listen all the time they are turned on – and Amazon has envisioned Alexa using that information to build profiles on anyone in the room to sell them goods.
Amazon filed a patent application for an algorithm that would let future versions of the device identify statements of interest, such as ‘I love skiing’, enabling the speaker to be monitored based on their interests and targeted for related advertising.
A Google patent application describes using a future release of it smart Home system to monitor and control everything from screen time and hygiene habits, to meal and travel schedules and other activities.
The devices are envisioned as part of a surveillance web in the home to chart a families’ patterns so that they can more easily be marketed to based on their interests.
John Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s privacy and technology project director, said: ‘Google and Amazon executives want you to think that Google Home and Amazon Echo are there to help you out at the sound of your voice.
‘In fact, they’re all about snooping on you and your family in your home and gathering as much information on your activities as possible.
‘You might find them useful sometimes, but think about what you’re revealing about yourself and your family, and how that information might be used in the future.
‘Instead of charging you for these surveillance devices, Google and Amazon should be paying you to take one into your home.’
MailOnline contacted both Amazon and Google for a comment, but had yet to receive a response at the time of publication.
Google and Amazon appear most interested in using the data they get by snooping on your daily life to target advertising, Consumer Watchdog said.
However, when that information is compiled others could access it.
For example, home insurers and utility companies have already made deals with Nest to put smart devices in their customers’ homes.
Law enforcement is already seeking information from smart devices.
An Amazon Echo made headlines last year when US police investigating a murder sought to subpoena recordings made by the device.
Investigators in the same case also managed to obtain data from a smart water meter that suggested that the crime scene had been hosed down before police arrived.
Hackers and identity thieves are also likely to be able to access the data compiled by Google and Amazons snooping, the report warns.
This is not the first time that the voice search function has landed Google in hot water in recent months.
In November, MailOnline received a number of transcripts of conversations that show how Voice Assistant may be recording your conversations without you knowing.
The feature is designed to allow users to talk to enabled gadgets to search the web, launch apps and use other interactive functions.
As part of this process, Google keeps copies of clips made each time you activate it, but it has emerged that background chatter could be enough to trigger recording.
One example from an anonymous user appears to have registered the code to their back door entry system, while chatting with a friend.
A written transcript of the conversation said: ‘If you ever get booked down to my house for some reason the key safe for the back door is 0783.’
Another user’s conversation about technology appears to have been captured, without them realising the assistant was recording.
They said: ‘Mate. We’re living in the future. I’ve just installed a game through the Steam app remotely on my PC in London from my phone.’
Another clip from the same person appears to have captured them saying ‘F*** off’ to someone.
Google previously released a My Activity feature that reveals exactly how much information the company has collected about you, through your activities online.
What some people may be unaware of is that the Voice and Audio section includes recordings of your voice.
These are made when you trigger the voice assistant, which may happen inadvertently during conversations or by pressing buttons on a Voice Assistant enabled device without realising it.
A spokesman for the firm said: ‘We only process voice searches after the phone believes the hot word ‘OK Google’ is detected.
‘Audio snippets are used by Google to improve the quality of speech recognition across Search.’
They added that ambient recording is never transmitted to the cloud.
Google’s support site says that the firm records your voice and other audio, plus a few seconds before, when you use audio activation.
This includes saying commands like ‘OK Google’ or tapping the microphone icon.
Your audio is saved to your account only when you’re signed in and Voice & Audio Activity is turned on. Audio can be saved even when your device is offline.
The Mountain View company says it uses your Voice & Audio Activity to learn the sound of your voice and how you say words and phrases.
It is also used to improve speech recognition across it products.
To see your saved audio, sign in with your Google account information.
This will enable you to see all the information Google has stored on the history of your account.
To delete any, click on the three dots in the top right corner and choose ‘Delete activity by’.
This will take you to a window where you can pick if you would like to delete any information.