Smart speakers like the Amazon Echo and Google Nest Mini can make life easier, but they also pose some privacy concerns. A device that responds to voice commands does not need to listen always? Let̵
When you think about how a smart speaker or smart screen works, logic would tell you to constantly listen. After all, how can your device hear your “Alexa” or “Hey Google” command if it isn’t listening? Well, you are right. These devices to be always listening, but it’s not as scary as it sounds.
Listening versus recording
When people hear that smart speakers are always listening, they really fear the possibility that the smart speaker is always recording them. That’s how people listen, but that’s not what happens with smart speakers. This is an important distinction to make.
When you listen to someone talk, you are actually recording the information in your brain. You remember what the person said and you can access it later. However, if you don’t pay attention, the information won’t be recorded in your brain. The person asks, “What did I just say?”, And you don’t know.
This is similar to how a smart speaker works. It is always listening, but nothing is recorded until it hears the ‘Alexa’ or ‘Hey Google’ wake-up commands. Only then will it record and take action based on what you say. Without those wake-up calls, everything you say is ‘in one ear and out the other’, so to speak.
Another way to think about this is to imagine how a dog understands you. The dog hears everything you say, but only understands certain sentences. Hearing is not the same as understanding, just as listening is not the same as recording.
How does that work?
It’s pretty cool that these devices are programmed to listen to certain words and phrases, but how does that actually work? Unsurprisingly, it is quite complicated and very interesting.
There are a few things at play here. It is a combination of hardware, software and the Internet. We took an in-depth look at how Alexa listens for wake-up commands, but we’ll paraphrase a bit here.
First, these devices usually contain multiple microphones. An Echo Dot, for example, has seven microphones. This helps the speaker to hear commands from near and far, as well as in noisy environments. All of these microphones work together to locate your voice.
When it comes to actually recognizing the wake up command, Amazon uses neural network training. It trains an algorithm by giving it a number of different instances of the word ‘Alexa’. Google Assistant does a similar thing.
Every time you say a word, it goes through algorithms to find out if it matches the speech pattern associated with the wake-up command. This is all done locally on your device. Only after it has gone through several layers of detection does it start recording and sending the audio to the cloud.
RELATED: How Alexa Listens to Wake Words
What will happen to these recordings?
Hopefully we have addressed some of your concerns about listening, but what about recordings? That is still a frightening aspect for many people, knowing that every question and assignment you give will be recorded and stored somewhere.
Amazon and Google deal with these recordings in slightly different ways. Both allow you to see what exactly was recorded and delete the recordings at any time. However, Google offers more privacy tools.
RELATED: How to delete your Alexa recordings by voice
In August 2020, Google stopped saving audio recordings by default. Users can still choose to have their recordings saved, but this is purely optional. Google also has the option to automatically delete recordings when they get old.
RELATED: How (and why) to sign up for Google recording storage
Amazon’s options aren’t that great. You cannot turn off voice recordings completely and there is no way to automatically delete old recordings. All you can do is delete recordings with a voice command or do it manually.
RELATED: How to listen to (and delete) every command you’ve ever given to Alexa
In some cases, employees and contractors at companies such as Amazon, Google, Apple and Microsoft listen to your voice recordings. However, you are still in control. Here’s how to prevent people from hearing your voice assistant recordings.
RELATED: How to prevent businesses from listening to your Voice Assistant recordings
The truth is, you have to give up some privacy to use these virtual assistant smart devices. However, these companies have tools to minimize privacy risks. You must take advantage of those tools.
The moral of the story is that these devices aren’t as scary as you might think. They don’t always record and upload what you say, but they do keep some recordings.