Always Listening: Are voice-activated smart devices tuning in to your every word?


Voice-enabled smart devices are red hot—more than 40 million have already sold and that number continues to grow. There are many affordable options to choose from these days, making it feasible to put a voice-activated device in every room in the house to control other Wi-Fi enabled products such as light bulbs, thermostats and more. However, whether it's Alexa, Google or Siri, it's likely your smart devices are listening—even when you think they’re not.

Question is, should you be concerned?

Most smart devices that are voice controlled are activated via a “smart word” or a particular phrase that initiates your interaction with it. Because of that feature, your device is actively listening in case you utter “Hey Siri” or “Ok, Google” at any given moment. According to Amazon, Alexa-enabled devices record every conversation you have—So does Apple Siri and Google Home. However, all three companies claim not to record any conversations prior to or after you initiate and/or finish conversations with the device—a claim that Amazon, Apple and Google stand by and have reiterated on multiple occasions. Also, it's important to recognize that even though voice-activated devices are always listening, only when the smart word or phrase is uttered does the device transmit data to a voice recognition server. All the active listening, if you will, happens locally in the device. 

Does that mean things will always stay this way? Only time will tell. Case in point, Amazon has filed a patent that shows the company has the ability to react to certain conversations that aren't directed to your smart device. For instance, it has the capability to hear you talking about taking a vacation, which may then lead to targeted marketing via its Echo devices on related topics that pertain to your upcoming trip.

At Zyxel, we haven’t raised any red flags yet, and feel the benefits in having voice-activated devices far outweigh the concerns. Also, Amazon, Apple and Google each offer means for deleting recorded conversations if you feel so inclined. So for now, we’re sticking with them…

What about you? Are you concerned that voice-activated devices are “always listening”? Let us know in the comments!

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