How Paranoid Should You Be About Your Nosy Virtual Assistant?

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It's a family affair. Everything that goes on in your house is technically recordable by your virtual assistant. (Photo: Courtesy of Microsoft)

As many of us settle into the new year with virtual assistants like the Amazon Echo, Google Home or Microsoft Cortana, it’s worth asking: how much personal information are they picking up? Also, where does that information go?

Consumer Watchdog, a Santa Monica-based nonprofit, has asked federal regulators to get out in front of a future where virtual assistants are listening to everything that goes on in your home, whether or not you use the “wake” words to launch them.

John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog has read the patent applications for these assistants, and he says those applications clearly indicate plans for broader, commercially focused household surveillance in the near future. "You know, keeping track of things like the number of times you flush the toilet, and when you go to bed," he says.

Simpson adds that kids using your devices are being tracked, too, regardless of whether you're in the room or giving permission. He asserts that such tracking is a violation of the Child Online Privacy Protection Act. "One of the patents proposes inferring whether a child is misbehaving," Simpson says. "I just think that has crossed a line and is far too invasive."

The Federal Trade Commission would only confirm that it had received a letter from Consumer Watchdog.

Companies Respond

In response to Consumer Watchdog, Google issued a statement. "Consumer Watchdog's claims are unfounded," it reads. "All devices that come with the Google Assistant, including Google Home, are designed with user privacy in mind. For Google Home, we only store voice queries after a physical trigger or after recognizing a hot word trigger like 'OK Google' or 'Hey Google.'"


The answer from Amazon spokesman Leigh Nakanishi was more open-ended. “We take privacy seriously and have built multiple layers of privacy into Echo devices," she wrote. "Like many companies, we file a number of forward-looking patent applications that explore the full possibilities of new technology. Patents take multiple years to receive and do not necessarily reflect current developments to products and services.”

Microsoft declined to comment.

Virtual assistants on display at the Amazon store in San Jose.
Virtual assistants on display at the Amazon store in San Jose. (Photo: Rachael Myrow/KQED)

All of that said, Big Tech is already tracking you: your searches, purchases online and off, social media browsing, even email. You want out of this data-mining ecosystem? It’s going to take work.

As Brian Blau, a VP at the tech research firm Gartner explains, "You’d have to leave your smartphone away from where you are, drive a car anonymously, or not your own car, drive in someone else’s. Not walk in front of any cameras anywhere. You know, there are millions and millions of them all over the place."

Blau has several virtual assistants in his home, for research purposes. "I have to be careful, because if I say their names right now, they will respond accordingly," he jokes.

But he’s not worried about them tracking his every move and sending the information to advertisers. What worries Blau is the likelihood that, advertisers will eventually want to talk to you directly through your assistant.

For those creeped out by the thought of recorded requests and other things you've said being stored in a database, you can mute your device's microphone, turn off the device when you're not using it, or periodically delete the files being kept on you.

But as Amazon warns, “deleting voice recordings may degrade your Alexa experience.”