How Big Tech is listening in on your life

Couple using smart speaker at home

Smart speakers and personal assistants are the future right?

Why go to the bother of typing in the thing you want to look up or reaching for that remote control to switch channels when you can just speak a command and it will be done automatically.

Come the holiday season, there will be big discounts on Amazon Echo devices, Apple’s HomePod, Google Home devices and the various other smart speakers that are flooding the market. In many cases, they are literally available at loss-making prices.

The question that we should all be asking ourselves is why?

Smart speaker data collection

In recent weeks, the answer to that question has become more and more clear. These devices are far more than a time-saving device to help the busy consumer. Instead, they are yet another tool for big tech companies to gather data on their users.

After all, for the majority of big tech companies, their gargantuan profits are not generated through sales of hardware or software but through user data which they can process and then use to attract revenue from advertisers or sell to a myriad of companies who can use it for consumer insights.

Through smart speakers, they can gather data on what music you are listening to, what TV shows and movies you watch, what you look up online, information from your calendar, what time you wake up in the morning and much, much more.

This is the type of data collected by many websites. But smart speakers also offer another insight into your daily lives too. They are a microphone in your home and have the capacity to record everything you to say to them and potentially even things you don’t.

Amazon’s belated opt-out

The issue of smart speakers recording users and those recordings being reviewed has recently hit the headlines after it was revealed that Amazon kept transcripts and recordings of everything you say to its Alexa personal assistant.

Even worse, they even had employees listening to some of these recordings. This was ostensibly to ensure accuracy but the fact that it is done for this reason means there is nothing to stop them listening for other purposes too.

After a swathe of negative headlines, Amazon has recently caved and added a function which allows users to opt-out of allowing Amazon to record and keep transcripts of your interactions.

However, this is not the default setting and in their settings menu, Amazon does its utmost to persuade you not to flick the switch.

If you care about your online privacy and plan to continue using your Amazon Echo, we would urge you to seek out this setting and opt-out at the earliest opportunity.

Apple listening to Siri recordings too

Apple too has been caught listening to recordings from its popular Siri personal assistant.

The Guardian reported last week that the practice of listening to Siri recordings was commonplace. Even more worryingly, the practice is not even carried out by Apple staff members but hired contractors.

According to the Guardian’s report, these contractors are regularly privy to highly sensitive information including users medical records and even recordings of them having sex.

After the Guardian reported the issue, Apple has reacted by suspending the practice while it conducts a review.

This sounds awfully like kicking the issue into the long grass and, so far, they have not taken the decisive steps that Amazon has and allowed their users to decide if they want to opt-in to allowing their recordings to be monitored or not.

Why this invasion of privacy matters

Some people may wonder why it matters that companies like Amazon and Apple are allowing are recording people’s conversations with their smart speakers and personal assistants. After all, this is mostly mundane instructions that most people wouldn’t be coy about.

The danger is that with a speaker in people’s home always listening, where do we draw the line? A couple of years ago, Amazon courted controversy by handing US cops a recording of a murder.

This case set a hugely worrying precedent. At what point does a smart speaker stop becoming an assistant and start becoming a surveillance tool listening in on everything we do.

What happens when the data from these devices is not just used to make advertising profits but also made available to governments and intelligence agencies too. It would only take a modest change in the terms and conditions for this to be permissible.

Most people would object to their government placing a bug in their home. The popularity of these smart speakers means that many people are potentially doing just that perfectly willingly.

Our advice would be to steer clear of smart speakers and disable personal assistants until the legal boundaries of what they can and can’t record and keep has been firmly established.

If you must use them, do so sparingly, and ensure that they are both switched off and disconnected from their power source when not in use.

The next time you have a confidential conversation with your partner, you want to be 100% sure that the whole world isn’t listening in!

David Spencer

Author: David Spencer

David is VPNCompare's News Editor. Anything going on in the privacy world and he's got his eye on it. He's also interested in unblocking sports allowing him to watch his favourite football team wherever he is in the world.

Away from writing, he enjoys reading and politics. He is currently learning Mandarin too... slowly.

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