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:
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.
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.
Although all the evidence supporting the allegations that the Facebook app is "listening" through your phone's microphone for advertising purposes is purely anecdotal (Facebook also denies the claims), it's still your choice if you want to prevent it or any other app from accessing your mic. It's actually quite easy!
If you are an iPhone user, go to Settings >> Facebook >> Settings >> slide the Microphone switch to the left so it turns from green to white. That turns it off. Alternatively, you can go to Settings >> Privacy >> Microphone >> look for Facebook then do the same. Note that you can toggle the mic on and off for other apps, too.
For Android users: Try Settings >> Applications >> Application Manager >> look for Facebook >> Permissions >> Turn off the mic.
Keep in mind that turning off Facebook's microphone access will affect and disable specific features of the app such as Live Video. If you're going to use these features, you will have to toggle the mic back on.
A more troubling form of audio tracking is the use of high-frequency ultrasonic sounds that are beyond the known limit of what humans can hear.
Although these sounds are inaudible to you and me, these high-frequency sounds can be picked up by a smartphone or tablet's microphone, allowing marketers to pair browser cookies to track a single user's behavior across multiple devices.
In fact, hundreds of Android apps were already using ultrasonic sounds to track user behavior including location and TV viewing habits that raised security concerns.
In response to these discovered practices, Google announced that Android apps that are found to be using ultrasonic tracking will be banned or suspended unless they are updated in adherence with the Google Play Store's updated privacy policies.
The new policies now require developers to disclose an app's ultrasonic features and ask a user's permission before a gadget's mic can be used for ultrasonic tracking. So if you're worried about ultrasonic tracking, check the permissions before you install an Android app.
Other virtual assistants and appliances:
And it's not just smartphones you need to check, the increasingly popular smart speakers can be privacy risks too.
Is Amazon Echo always listening? The short answer is yes.
Alexa is activated when it detects one of its wake words, which are "Alexa," "Amazon," "Computer," or "Echo." You'll know that the device is ready for a command when the outer ring at the top glows blue.
When activated, Alexa allows you to search the web, play music, and even control other smart home devices you've added to your home network. For example, with the right smart gadgets, you can turn off the lights in another room, lock the front door, turn up the thermostat, etc.
The downside is that Amazon keeps an audio recording of every voice command you've issued to Alexa. When you give a command to Alexa, a recording of that command is stored on Amazon's servers.
According to Amazon, there is also a fraction of a second of audio before the wake word that is stored along with each recording. That fraction of a second gets saved along with your main command, and the recording ends after the command has been processed.
Are these recordings all bad? Not necessarily. They're meant to enhance your user experience and help Alexa fine tune its comprehension. However, you're probably not comfortable having someone rummage through your internet search history. The same concern rings true with your Alexa requests.
Microsoft also has a voice activated virtual assistant available in Windows called Cortana.
Similar to Siri, Google Assistant, and Alexa, it can answer questions, do searches, set appointments, open applications and it can also be activated with its own wake phrase "Hey Cortana."
How to turn off "Hey Cortana": Open Cortana on your Windows computer, select the Notebook icon in the right column, click on Settings then toggle "Hey Cortana" to off.
Keep in mind that disabling the mics will definitely defeat the raison d'étre of these smart speakers and always-on assistants. The always-listening nature of these smart virtual assistants is what makes them truly compelling gadgets to have. Hopefully, developers will soon find a good compromise between security and ease of use.
As you can see, smartphones and smart appliances definitely bring numerous conveniences to our modern world but just as any other internet connected gadget, security risks will always be lurking somewhere. Click here to read about the dangers of making your home a smart home.