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Is your smartphone listening in on your conversations?

Is your smartphone listening in on your conversations?
© Norman Chan | Dreamstime

For decades, voice-controlled technology was seen strictly as a science fiction construct. Now, our smartphones are no longer used strictly for calls and chats - we can now use our voices to command these gadgets themselves via their built-in smart assistants like Siri and Google Assistant.

With the always-on, always-listening nature of these smartphone virtual assistants, does this impressive technology come with a cost?

As more manufacturers and developers jump onto the audio tracking bandwagon, can you tell when your smartphone is recording? And what really happens to the audio data it gathers?

Chances are, as with any other tracking information, this data is likely anonymized and run through algorithms that look for behavior and patterns that can be used for targeted advertising. But still, knowing that your smartphone or appliance may be listening to you at all times can be understandably unsettling.

If you're worried about the privacy risks of your smartphone's always-on microphone, here are tips on how to turn it off:

Siri

With iOS 8, Apple introduced the "Hey Siri" wake phrase. With this feature, you can summon Siri without even touching your iPhone. If you turn this feature on, this means your iPhone's mic is always listening, waiting for the phrase "Hey Siri."

Apple says this is processed locally on the device and your iOS device does not start recording your voice until it hears "Hey Siri." Once your request is recorded, it then uploads the audio file to Apple's servers for processing.

Here's how you turn off "Hey Siri": Navigate to your iOS device's Settings >> General >> Siri then toggle Allow "Hey Siri" to off.

Note: Always-on wake phrase "Hey Siri" only works for iPhone 6s or later, the 2nd-gen 12.9-inch iPad Pro and the 9.7-inch iPad Pro. iPhone 6 or earlier and other iPad and iPad Touch models have to be plugged in for the "Hey Siri" wake phrase to work.

Android/ Google

Google is right in the middle of the push for more voice-controlled functionality with its Google Assistant activated with the wake phrase "OK Google." Google Assistant is installed on Google Home smart speakers, Android smartphones, the Chrome browser, and you can get it on iOS as well.

It's no surprise that Google is also tracking your voice-activated requests and searches, too. That's right. Every time you use "OK Google" or use another voice-controlled function, odds are your request is recorded and the snippets are saved to your Google account.

On its website, Google says these recordings help it better recognize your voice and more accurately accomplish tasks. That might be true, but even if Google doesn't share, anyone who gets into your account can hear what you've searched for.

Like Apple, Google claims that Google Assistant only starts recording after hearing the wake phrase "OK Google."

Luckily, Google introduced a new My Account tool that lets you access your recordings and delete them if you want. You can also tell Google to stop recording your voice for good.

You can also turn the "OK Google " wake phrase off. On Android, just go to Settings >> Google >> Search & Now >> Voice and turn “Ok Google” detection off.

Click here to listen to and delete everything you've ever said to Google.

Next page: Facebook and other smart appliances
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