Home voice assistants like Amazon Echo and Google Home are handy, but are they secret backdoors for governments and corporations to spy on everything you say? No, of course not. Reports that Echo and Google Home can spy on you are greatly exaggerated.
People naturally worry about having a device like the Amazon Echo in their home. Do you put a microphone in your house and tell him to listen to everything just in case you call him by his name? How weird is that? However, there are many misconceptions about how this works, what Amazon does with this data, and how easy it is for the government to gain access to the microphone to spy on you.
Your echo is always listening, but Amazon is not
Let’s start by looking at how devices like the Echo and Google Home work. While Amazon and Google say their devices are «always listening,» that doesn’t mean they’re always recording. Both devices use local processing to listen for their wake word. This wake-up word detection includes a working buffer of the last few seconds of captured audio, although this data is never transmitted anywhere and is deleted when new audio arrives. In practice, your echo will never have more than the last few seconds. audio is stored on it.
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Once the device detects the word «wake» — in Amazon’s case, usually «Alexa» — that’s another story. Echo sends everything you say after the word «wake» (plus the fraction of a second before the word «wake» according to Amazon) to the Amazon servers. There, the audio is analyzed to determine your voice command, and the servers send a response back to your echo. Amazon also stores the audio of your voice command as well as the response and associates this data with your account. It’s not just for Amazon’s benefit. You can view, view, and erase your voice command history, and even confirm when Alexa receives a command so you can practice it better.
From a privacy standpoint, this voice story might be a problem (and we’ll talk about it in a bit), but it’s a heck of a lot better than an entire audio recording of everything you’ve ever said at home. Simply put, neither Echo nor Google Home has the ability to record or listen to everything you say out of the box.
Of course, this only applies to them. destination .
It’s not yet clear if the government will be able to require Alexa search data.
Even if you trust Amazon or Google with data about your purchases or search habits, it’s reasonable to fear that governments might try to force these companies to share data about you. This was the central issue of the 2013 Snowden leaks, when it was discovered that many large technology companies were forced by law or subpoena to hand over data to the US government. Naturally, if Amazon is going to keep a record of even some of the things you say at home, you might want to know if the company is going to turn it over to the government.
As it happens, the case where this could happen has already happened. In December 2016, prosecutors at an Arkansas murder trial demanded that Amazon forward any sound the defendant’s Echo could pick up on the night a dead man was found in his hot tub. This was a fairly broad request, as there is no reason other than blind guesswork to believe that the Echo would have been activated during the crime. At the time, Amazon defied the subpoena and refused to release its customer data.
Despite Amazon’s opposition, the defendant ultimately decided to voluntarily hand over their data to Echo. Fortunately, this does not mean that Amazon is legally obligated to honor such requests in the future, but it also means that we have not yet created a legal precedent for this. In the future, if another prosecutor tries to get too much demand for Amazon’s data, the company may have to start a whole new fight to protect its customers’ data. Who knows if Amazon will win next time?
However, whether or not Amazon goes after you in a hypothetical future litigation, there’s little chance that your Echo will give you a headache. For starters, only a small percentage of what you say in your home is recorded and saved, and you can delete that history if you need to. It is possible that a court may require your Alexa commands as evidence, but this is so unlikely that your purchasing decisions should not be considered.
Your echo can be hacked, but so can everything else
Plus, all of this assumes that everyone from Amazon to law enforcement follows the rules and is honest. However, governments, hackers and shady companies are constantly breaking the rules. So, is it possible that someone could secretly use your Echo to spy on you without revealing it?
Well, yes, but not everything is so simple. Security researchers have found that with physical access to the device, an attacker can hack into the Amazon Echo and intercept the raw microphone input, steal Amazon’s authentication tokens, and more. This goes for your computers, of course, and your home in general (hey, if they wanted to record everything you say, they could just hide an old-fashioned microphone somewhere). Luckily, physical access to your Echo and other devices is a rather difficult hurdle in the first place. If you want to stop a hacker from viewing your technology, start by checking the guests in your house.
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Then there’s the issue of remote hacks. Sure, the FBI probably has more sophisticated tricks than the average hacker, but there’s no guarantee that Echo will be the easiest way to spy on you. Most of us have several laptops, smartphones and other gadgets with cameras and microphones at home. A laptop running Windows (or even macOS) is generally easier to hack and record audio because it’s a much more complex platform and has more possible attack vectors. If you’ve had a computer-connected microphone in your home for years — like the microphone on your webcam, which can certainly be hacked — there’s no reason Echo should instill a special level of fear in everything you own.
As with most privacy issues, it all comes down to your risk assessment. If you are unhappy with being listened to by governments, hackers, or corporations, the safest solution is to always remove any cameras or microphones from your home. We all strike some balance between privacy and convenience, but when it comes to permanent voice assistants, they are not much more risky than most of the other gadgets you have at home.