There have been huge advances in devices that use speech recognition to carry out commands, from Siri on iPhone devices to the recent surge in purchases of Amazon Echo and Google Home – products that we install in our homes to make our lives easier.
These in-house assistants seem like second nature nowadays, with voice searches on mobile phones growing dramatically in recent years. However, with microphones constantly turned on in our homes, some people worry about who's listening and how much they're hearing.
What are people using Google Home for?
While many people use Google Home as a shortcut to find information online, set alarms or get a weather forecast, it can be used to control a lot of what's happening in your house. As the culture of the Internet of Things gets more devices connected together, Google Home has more control over your home. The most common connection is with a TV or speaker system, and there are commands for Google Home to play a song, turn on Netflix or find a video on YouTube.
However, other 'smart' devices are popping up on the market that can be synced with Google Home. New thermostats work with the device, meaning you can change the temperature in your home with a voice command. Smart lamps, light bulbs and plugs give your voice more control over your home's ambience, and a whole range of devices can be synced up: robot vacuums can be told to start cleaning, fridges can send shopping lists to online supermarkets, and washing machines can be turned on as you wander to bed.
Google Home Easter eggs
While Google Home has a serious side to it, there are also a lot of hidden extras that you can use to show it off to friends.
You can ask to be entertained in a number of different ways, by asking:
- for a joke, a story, a quote or to be made to laugh,
- for a song, for it to sing Happy Birthday, for it to rap or to beatbox,
- for a fact, a fun fact or to be surprised,
- to play a game, flip a coin or roll a dice,
- or a plethora of Star Wars, Star Trek, Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings related questions.
And if you ever get bored of saying 'Okay, Google' to activate the device, it also responds to 'Hey, Booboo'.
Is Google Home eavesdropping?
There are concerns – especially among those who remember the telescreens from George Orwell's 1984 – that Google Home, Echo and similar devices are listening more than they should be.
The premise is simple – if they're alert enough to turn on with a simple voice command then the microphone must always be on. And if that's always on, then what else are they hearing?
The companies behind these devices adamantly deny that they're listening in all the time. Critics would argue that of course they would, and the idea that we're openly bringing these devices into our homes means our privacy is more at risk than ever.
Despite their insistence that they're doing nothing untoward, last year an early reviewer of Google Home found that it was, in fact, recording him 24/7 without any knowledge or activation on his part. Google claims this was a simple hardware flaw that has been fixed, and that no paying customers were ever at risk.
The only way to guarantee that these devices aren't recording us is to turn off their microphones, which essentially renders them useless.
Do these devices store your data?
The official line from Amazon and Google is that these devices do record your data, but only after you've woken them up (by saying 'Okay, Google', for example). The question you ask is stored and can be seen by account holders (so if you're looking for help with buying a present for your partner, beware that they can see the sorts of questions you're asking). Google admits that they're constantly recording snippets of conversation to look for its wake up call, but deletes them immediately if doesn't hear them.
Like with internet browsers, there is a way to delete these files. In the Alexa app, you just need to go to 'Settings' and 'History' to see and remove what's there. For Google users, go to https://myactivity.google.com/myactivity and you can delete your activity by timeframe to make things easier. If you don't do this, your history will stay stored forever.
Privacy concerns with virtual assistants
With so much data given over to these products – whether they're listening all the time or not – there are people and companies who are willing to make use of that. From personalised ads based on private discussions starting to move into very creepy territory to people stealing your data for nefarious means, there's never a good outcome to this. How often do we hear of privacy breaches online? If you're dictating your credit card numbers over and over, how are they being stored?
The other problem comes with these tools unable to differentiate between who's speaking. There have been reports of children using their parents' accounts to order toys and even of Alexa responding to a TV presenter's command in a home.
The 1984 aspect of privacy has also come to light at least once already. In 2015, a man was charged with first degree murder after police officers found suspicious data on the smart water meter – indicating a possible clean up when he said he was asleep. He was later cleared with timings on the meter found to be wrong and, with the accused's permission, Alexa recordings were used in the case. The prosecutors later dropped the case.
What can be done about it?
While the microphone is on, there's very little that can be done to stop your devices listening to you. However, without this functionality, Echo and Google Home aren't very useful. Both have the option to mute their microphones, so if you want to have a discussion about a surprise party that you don't want anyone to know about, you can temporarily turn off this feature.
To limit unauthorised purchases, you can set up your device so that a password is required to authorise payment. Be warned that people who know you well may be able to learn your password very easily.
All manufacturers claim that their devices only record when they're woken up. Different devices have different words that wake them up. If you have anyone in your house called 'Alex', saying their name can make Amazon's Echo, which typically uses 'Alexa' as its wake-up word, alert and start recording. This means it will record a lot more than you intend it to, and that anyone who grabs your phone or laptop can see these in your history. In the settings for the device, you can change the word used that wakes them up to minimise this sort of damage.
If you're worried about how much data is being stored, then make sure you clean your accounts regularly.