What happens to smart speaker recordings of your home?
ASHEVILLE, N.C. (WLOS) — Smart speakers -- like Amazon Echo, Google Home, and Apple HomePod -- have taken up residence in tens of millions of homes.
As their popularity grows, so do safety and privacy concerns. The price your privacy may pay with an open mic in your home depends on how much you share.
Smart speakers are always listening. So, what risks are there when you use these devices for more personal tasks, like banking?
“They're fun,” Kelly Garrison, a mom of two young boys, said of the devices.
Garrison's boys are at that age where questions fly fast and furious.
“OK Google, what do lightning bugs eat?” asked 6-year-old Emmett Garrison.
“OK Google, what does a lion sound like?” chimed in 5-year-old Hugh.
Their Google Home roars, and the boys giggle before getting back to peppering it with more questions.
“OK Google, tell me a joke,” Emmett said.
“What did one snowman say to the other? Do you smell carrots?” the Google Home replied.
The device helps Garrison quiet those inquisitive minds.
“It wasn't something we said, 'We must have a Google Home,' and so, it's been integrated into our lives as a gift,” she said.
Garrison is somewhat aware the device is listening and recording household activities.
“I get the e-mails that say, here's what you can use your Google assistant for, based on what we've asked before, like cookies, I guess. So, I knew that it was recording,” Garrison said.
But in two years, she says she has never checked her recording history to see what the device is storing on her family.
“Almost ignorance is bliss sometimes, because you don't know,” Garrison said.
Technology consultant Francie Black says if you have a Smart speakers plugged in and on, it never stops listening.
“They're constantly listening, but they're not constantly recording,” Black said.
So, when is it recording? When the wake or hot word is given, including “Alexa”, “OK Google”, and “Hey Siri."
However, the feature is not glitch-free.
A Portland couple's Echo Dot recorded their conversation and sent it to a random contact without their knowledge.
According to Amazon, "Echo woke up due to a word in background conversation sounding like “Alexa.” Then, the subsequent conversation was heard as a “send message” request. At which point, Alexa said out loud “To whom?” At which point, the background conversation was interpreted as a name in the customer’s contact list. Alexa then asked out loud, “[contact name], right?” Alexa then interpreted background conversation as “right."
"As unlikely as this string of events is, we are evaluating options to make this case even less likely,” an Amazon spokesperson said.
What these companies are interested in is who you are and what information you are after or searching.
“Both Google and Amazon, they associated the information, the phrases that you ask, they associate to you as the user. With Apple, they don't do that. You can't see what you've said to Siri, because you can't go back and see that history. It's all encrypted,” Black said.
When Garrison checked the settings for her Google Home, she found all of her kid’s questions.
“What's the biggest cat in the world?” Garrison read from the list.
If she can see them, so can the tech companies, and that is where it becomes a trade-off.
“They give you a service and they run ads. That's how they make money, and so the better ads they can serve, and if they can influence your buying behavior through those ads, that's how they make money. More people will advertise with them,” Black explained.
What can you do to protect yourself? While each device is different, you can go into your settings and delete questions you feel might give away more of your likes or interests.
You can also go into the settings and make choices about what targeted ads you may want to receive or what you don't want.
There are also features that allow these devices to keep recording without the wake word. On Amazon's Echo, it is a follow up setting you have to turn on, allowing the device to keep recording and allowing you to ask follow up questions without saying “Alexa."
Smart speaker upgrades could eventually have them recording when consumers least expect it.
As we reached out to these companies with Black’s help, many were just updating their privacy policies.
News 13 also found patents filed for these devices could potentially one day change when they're listening in your home.
When the kid’s aren’t peppering Garrison's Google Home with questions, she’s listening to podcasts.
“OK Google, play the latest Oprah, Super Soul Sessions," she said.
She also uses it for help with common kitchen tasks.
“Measuring equivalents, when I'm cooking and I can't get to the phone,” Garrison explained.
While that might not matter to most, Garrison's Google Home is interested enough to record all of those requests, even common requests, like what the kids ask every morning.
“OK Google, what's the weather forecast?” chimes in Emmett.
What then are tech companies doing with the data? The answer is found in the privacy agreements.
“I wouldn't say that's what I have a ton of extra time, to be reading privacy agreements,” Garrison said.
“It's nearly impossible to know everything. If you look at the policies, they're these long, drawn-out sheets,” Black said.
With plenty of links, News 13 found 42 different "click here" options on one and the same, if not more, on others.
“To fully get the full thing, you'd have to actually click through links to try and get that information. So, it's hard,” Black said.
Sorting through the policies is difficult, to say the least.
News 13 looked for you and here's some of what we found:
- Amazon shares information with business partners and third-party services.
- Google Home can access your search history to personalize ads
- Apple’s HomePod, like most of its devices, scrambles your data with millions of others, so it shares general patterns rather than specifics traced back to you.
On Amazon and Google, you can delete recordings, but it is a trade-off, as less information shared equals less responsive devices.
“Amazon says the purpose of recording that is to improve the service, and to make it better, make it smarter, and it learns about you. It even learns how you talk,” Black said.
The only definitive answer we got on privacy policies was from Amazon about their Echo kids.
“On the Echo for Kids, Amazon has made it very clear to me they do not release personal information about children to third parties. So, they have made that distinction,” Black said.
But as consumers make downloads to the device, from any third party app, these apps have their own privacy policies, separate from the tech companies.
A bigger concern might be future use.
“So, what you know today may not apply tomorrow,” Black said.
Patent applications for Google and Amazon show some tech companies' intentions to change when a device is active, listening to see if you say things like "I like cycling," or talking about wanting to travel, or talking about a pizza craving.
A wake word, like “Alexa” or “Hey Google,” wouldn't be the only trigger anymore, and that, the consumer watchdog says, is a reason for awareness.
“To keep up with it, even if you knew everything today, next week or next month it could be totally different,” said Black.
It is why Garrison attempted to limit what a company can collect, by leaving blanks while setting up her device.
“I also haven't filled out all of the information in the setting and preferences and stuff I've left that very simple, with my name and my e-mail address, so it's connected to that,” Garrison said.
“It doesn't need to know. I'm not asking it to know more in-depth or private things,” Garrison said.
Garrison can control what her device shares by tweaking activity controls and ad settings to some extent, but it might be impossible to keep it from sharing some information with business partners, advertisers or any stranger who steps into your home.
Something else to think of how are these devices influencing your choices? If you ask for flight information, when News 13 made the request we found very different results from one device to the next.
Just like search engines, these devices have preferences on where they are going to get the information, giving you something to think about.
Francie Black says to remember these devices are tied to advertising and product sales companies.