Myth or fact: Alexa is always listening!

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Pic Source: Sebastian Scholz Nuki via Unsplash

Voice assistants like Alexa are there for us when we call. But many users ask themselves: Is the voice assistant always listening to everything we say? And if so, what does that mean?

Alexa always has an open digital ear 

Voice assistants like Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri are usually activated by certain words. This only works if they always have an open ear in the figurative sense. Because only then can they will realize when the activation word is said. Technically speaking, they are always listening.
If you turn off or mute the device, you deactivate this listening function, but you can no longer control the assistant via voice command.

What do we actually mean by listening in?

For us humans, “listening” means that we process and store the information we hear. A voice assistant like Alexa doesn’t do that as long as it only waits for a voice command.

When does listening turn into “listening-in”?

Voice assistants process and store what they hear only after they have recognized the activation word. For example, “Alexa” or “OK Google”. Then the assistant records what is said. In most cases, it sends this recording via WLAN to an external server for processing. There, the spoken words are analyzed, the answer is processed and sent back to the device. This all happens within a few seconds, so the voice assistant hardly responds with a delay. Good to know: The recording of the voice command is usually stored on the server where it was analyzed.

Can someone listen to these stored voice recordings? 

Yes, it is possible for other people to hear these recordings. This is because employees of the providers listen to some of the recordings to compare how well the current software has recognized and answered to them.

How can I prevent my stored voice recordings from being listened to? 

Depending on the provider, you can prohibit or disagree with the analysis of your recordings in the settings of your voice assistant.
However: In the past, recordings were sometimes analyzed due to software errors despite settings to the contrary. Therefore, we advise you to additionally delete existing recordings if necessary and either not to recordings at all or to save them only for a limited time.

Deleting recordings: You can usually specify in the settings of your voice assistant that all recordings are to be deleted. In some cases, you can also manually check the recordings, listen to them if necessary, and delete them. Also, you can command some voice assistants to delete what you hear at any time.
Do not save recordings or only save them for a limited time: In the settings of your voice assistant, you can specify that recordings are not saved at all or only for a limited period of time.

Will my saved voice recordings be used for personalized advertising? 

With Alexa and Google Assistant: Yes. You can find more detailed information about this in the Alexa Terms of Use and in the Google Privacy Policy. Apple, on the other hand, emphasizes in the information about Siri and privacy: “We only use this data to improve Siri. We don’t share it or sell it.”
If you use another voice assistant, for example Samsung’s Bixby or Microsoft’s Cortana, you can find the relevant information in the privacy or terms of use.

Don’t share everything with the Internet: Siri

By the way, the voice assistant Siri processes some requests directly on the device. This can be checked when the Internet is deactivated. You can then set an alarm clock, dictate notes and set reminders, for example. However, these voice commands are also recorded and later shared with Apple – if you do not delete the history beforehand.

Caution! Similar-sounding words can activate voice assistants.

Voice assistants can also mishear each other. For example, Alexa can feel addressed when an Alexander is visiting you. Or the Google Assistant mistakes a mumbled “Ok, good!” for “Ok Google”. In the case of such mistakes, what is said is also recorded and sent to the external servers.
If you notice such an unwanted action, ask the voice assistant why it is responding right now. You can also command it to delete the recording directly.
Tip: Activate signal tones with which your voice assistant shows you that it is currently processing spoken words. Then you will notice unwanted activations even when you are not looking at it.

Can anyone use my voice assistant? 

In principle, yes, with the right activation word. Then even your children, guests or complete strangers can order things or, if necessary, open the doors to your smart home.
Most voice assistants are now able to recognize different voices. But this is more for personalization, e.g. which music playlists belong to which person. Voice recognition is not yet sufficient as a safeguard against misuse of the voice assistant.

How can I protect my voice assistant against unauthorized use? 

The simplest method is to mute or turn it off when you are not around. In addition, you can protect certain functions, such as shopping or opening door locks, by entering a PIN. However, you must speak this PIN aloud each time you use the device. Anyone who overhears it can also use it later. Of course, you can also simply deactivate functions that seem too risky or not set them up at all.

Security tips for your voice assistant

  • Prevent unauthorized persons from giving your voice assistant voice commands. For example, make sure you keep your distance from open windows.
  • Mute or turn off your voice assistant when you are not there.
  • Set up a PIN or password for sensitive functions, such as making online purchases or opening door locks.
  • Do not use your voice assistant in a publicly accessible WLAN. Ideal: Set up a separate, password-protected WLAN for it.

Updates for your voice assistant are usually installed automatically. Nevertheless, check the settings of your voice assistant occasionally to make sure your device is up to date.

Interested in more cybersecurity? 

Then take a look at our glossary entry on the Internet of Things (IoT). It covers all devices that have access to the Internet – your smart home, your smartwatch, your fitness tracker, and your Wi-Fi-enabled robot vacuum cleaner.