It’s been in the news for weeks: Employees and contractors at Amazon, Google, Apple, and Microsoft are listening to recordings of you talking to voice assistants like Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri, Cortana. Here’s how to stop humans from listening in.
Why Are Companies Listening to These Recordings?
Tech companies have employees—or, more often, contractors—listen to snippets of the conversations you have with voice assistants and other services. These are anonymized, which means the contractors can’t see your name or any personal information. Most conversations are never listened to. But companies may have a contractor listen to a few seconds of recordings later and see how the assistant did.
For example, if the assistant didn’t understand your question or provided a wrong answer, the contractor can note what happened. Developers can then use this information to improve the assistant and its capabilities. Many companies peek at the data you store with them and use the information they find for various purposes.
This is all allowed in the fine print you already agreed to when signing up for any of these services. But many people are surprised to hear it. And, considering voice assistants might accidentally activate in the middle of a conversation, it means that people could end up hearing snatches of potentially personal information.
Which Companies Are Listening?
Nearly any company offering some sort of voice-powered service has someone listening—at some point. Here are some recent stories:
- Amazon workers are listening to Alexa audio clips, according to a Bloomberg report from April 10, 2019. The report says thousands of workers around the world are listening.
- Google contractors have listened to some clips from Google Assistant, according to Belgian public broadcaster VRT in a report published on July 10, 2019.
- Apple contractors regularly listened to Siri recordings. Contractors say they frequently “hear drug deals, medical details, and people having sex,” according to a report by The Guardian on July 26, 2019.
- Microsoft contractors are listening to Cortana voice commands and even parts of some Skype calls, according to a Motherboard report on August 7, 2019.
Despite the lurid details, most recordings are never listened to. For example, Google told Wired that “around 0.2 percent of all recordings” are ever listened to.
Apple and Google Have Stopped Listening (For Now)
Apple and Google have both pressed the pause button and aren’t listening in to these recordings—for now.
Apple said it would continue the “grading”—what Apple calls a human review of Siri recordings—at a future date. The company said it had suspended grading “while we conduct a thorough review.” In a future version of Apple’s operating systems, you’ll be able to choose whether to participate in grading.
Google also said it’s pausing human review of these recordings “for at least three months from 1 August 2019.”
How to Stop Google From Storing Your Recordings
While Google contractors aren’t listening to your recordings right now, Google is still collecting recordings that may be listened to in the future. You can manage your voice activity if you want Google to stop collecting it, or if you want to delete the already gathered voice commands.
To do so, visit the Activity Controls page for your Google account. Locate “Voice & Audio Activity” here. To stop Google from storing new voice recordings, turn this off—this “Pauses” collection until you re-enable this option.
To delete already gathered recordings, click “Manage Activity” under Voice & Audio Activity. You’ll see all your stored voice activity. Use the options here to delete the activity you don’t want Google to keep.
For example, to delete all your stored audio recordings, click “Delete Activity By,” select “All Time, ” and click “Delete.”
How to Stop Amazon From Listening to Alexa Recordings
You can opt out of human review of your Alexa recordings via a new option. Amazon began offering this control on August 2, 2019.
As the page explains, “With this setting on, your voice recordings may be used to develop new features and manually reviewed to help improve our services. Only an extremely small fraction of voice recordings are manually reviewed.”
How to Stop Microsoft From Listening to Cortana Recordings
You might want to stop Microsoft from listening to bits of your Skype conversations—unfortunately, there’s no way to do that aside from leaving Skype behind and using another voice or video call service.
For Cortana, you can at least stop human review of your Cortana voice commands and conversations. To do so from a Windows 10 PC, head to Settings > Privacy > Speech. Disable the “Online speech recognition” option here. (You can press Windows+I to quickly open the Settings window from anywhere on Windows.)
We hope companies will be more transparent about how they use these voice recordings and offer clearer options for opting out in the future.
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