Google home mini speech bubbles

Smart speakers like the Amazon Echo and Google Nest Mini can make life easier, but they also present some privacy concerns. Doesn’t a device that responds to voice commands need to be listening all the time? Let’s talk about that.

If you think about how a smart speaker or smart display works, logic would tell you that they need to be constantly listening. After all, how can your device hear your “Alexa” or “Hey Google” command if it’s not listening? Well, you’re right. These devices are always listening, but it’s not as scary as it sounds.

Listening vs. Recording

When people hear that smart speakers are always listening, what they’re really afraid of is the possibility that the smart speaker is always recording them. That’s how humans listen, but that’s not what’s happening with smart speakers. This is an important distinction to make.

When you listen to someone talk, you are essentially making a recording of the information in your brain. You remember what the person said and you can access it later. However, if you’re not paying attention, the information doesn’t register 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’s always listening, but nothing registers until it hears the “Alexa” or “Hey Google” wake-up commands. Only then will it record and take action on what you’re saying. Without those wake-up commands, anything you say is “in one ear and out the other,” so to speak.

Another way to think of this is to imagine how a dog understands you. The dog hears everything you say, but it only understands certain phrases. Hearing is not the same as understanding, just like listening is not the same as recording.

How Does That Work?

It’s pretty cool that these devices are programmed to listen for certain words and phrases, but how does that actually work? Unsurprisingly, it’s pretty complicated and very interesting.

There are a few things at play here. It’s 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 typically have multiple microphones inside. An Echo Dot, for example, has seven microphones. This helps the speaker hear commands from up close and far away as well as in noisy environments. All of these microphones work together to pinpoint your voice.

When it comes to actually recognizing the wake-up command, Amazon uses neural network training. It trains an algorithm by feeding it a bunch of different instances of the word “Alexa.” Google Assistant does something similar.

Every time you say a word, it’s run through algorithms to figure out whether it matches the speech pattern associated with the wake-up command. This all happens locally on your device. Only after it has passed through several layers of detection does it begin to record and send the audio to the cloud.

RELATED: How Alexa Listens for Wake Words

What Happens to These Recordings?

Hopefully, we’ve eased some of your concerns about listening, but what about recordings? That’s still a scary aspect for a lot of people, knowing that every question and command you give is recorded and stored somewhere.

Amazon and Google have dealt with recording differently in the past, but they’ve arrived at the same place. Both allow you to see what exactly has been recorded, and you can delete the recordings at any time.

RELATED: How to Delete Your Alexa Recordings by Voice

In August of 2020, Google stopped storing audio recordings by default. Users can still opt-in to having their recordings stored, but it’s purely optional. Google also has the ability to auto-delete recordings when they get old.

RELATED: How (and Why) to Opt-In to Google Recording Storage

Amazon’s options are similar. You can turn off voice recordings completely or auto-delete old recordings. Alexa can also delete recordings with a voice command and you can 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 like Amazon, Google, Apple, and Microsoft are listening to your voice recordings. However, you still have control. Here’s how to stop human beings from hearing your voice assistant recordings.

RELATED: How to Stop Companies From Listening to Your Voice Assistant Recordings

The truth is that you have to give up some privacy to use these virtual assistant smart devices. However, these companies have tools in place to minimize the privacy risks. You should take advantage of those tools.

The moral of the story is that these devices aren’t as scary as you might think. They aren’t always recording and uploading whatever you say—but they do keep some recordings.

Profile Photo for Joe Fedewa Joe Fedewa
Joe Fedewa is a Staff Writer at How-To Geek. He has been covering consumer technology for over a decade and previously worked as Managing Editor at XDA-Developers. Joe loves all things technology and is also an avid DIYer at heart. He has written thousands of articles, hundreds of tutorials, and dozens of reviews.
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