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Is Your Smart Home Spying on You?

Your gadgets and gear may be listening. Here’s how to turn them all off

smart home speaker

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We take a look at what happens to all that information you tell your smart device.

En español | When you type words into your web browser like “vacation” or “trip,” it’s no coincidence you’ll likely start seeing airline or hotel ads pop up on websites. Many internet users have grown to accept targeted advertisements.

But now that we’re using our voices to control our smart TV, smart speakers and other devices, is what we’re saying also being used to collect information on us?

The short answer: Yes.

Your devices are not quite a spying Big Brother, because most of us allow companies to use our information when we click OK on the fine-print agreements we see as we set up our gadgets. Still, many users are understandably concerned about what’s being recorded and for what purpose.

What’s done with your data?

Your data is valuable to all kinds of companies. Smart-TV makers, for example, may want to know what you’re asking to view, and could sell this information to eager advertisers who may target you with more of the same. They don’t know your name, but some users find this practice creepy nonetheless.

Smart speakers — such as Amazon Echo, Google Home and Apple HomePod — often use information that you give them as you speak to help make the experience better over time. For example, this can make the interaction more accurate and faster, as well as personalizing your device, with better suggestions and answers. However, your speakers can also use the information you give them to target ads you will see on your computer or phone. If you ask your Google Home speaker to order dog food, for instance, you may see pet nutrition ads when you launch your Google Chrome browser.

It should be noted that smart speakers are actually quite dumb — that is, the hardware itself is a conduit for uploading your queries over the internet to servers that process your requests, and then send the responses back down to the speaker. And your speakers are not recording anything you say before you wake them up. Only after you use the “wake word” — such as “Alexa” for Amazon Echo, “OK Google” for Google Home or “Hey, Siri” for Apple HomePod — does the speaker start listening.

How to turn it off

If you’re nervous about all this data collection, you can disconnect. But if you enjoy the convenience of using voice, which many find more natural and intuitive compared with a mouse and keyboard, and you don’t want to give up your speakers or smart TV, consider some steps for added privacy.

On most smart TVs, you will turn off snooping ACR (“automatic content recognition”) technology, but how you go about it will vary on the TV make and model you have. In most cases you will start with the settings or hub option. Check your user guide. Also look for guidance on how to delete information it already has saved.

As for your speakers, on Amazon Echo or Google Home, mute the speaker by pressing a button on the top or back of the device, while with HomePod you can ask Siri to mute the speaker (or use the app to disable it).

To delete information already saved:

Amazon Echo: In your Alexa app, go to Settings > History and delete everything. Alternatively, sign in at amazon.com and click Your Devices > Echo Dot > Manage voice recordings. A pop-up will give you the chance to clear it out. “These recordings are securely stored in the AWS cloud and tied to your Amazon account to allow the service to be personalized to you,” says Amazon. “They are stored until customers choose to delete them.”

Google Home: Go to myactivity.google.com and tap or click on the three-dot line in the upper-right corner, then Delete Activity By. Google says it does not sell your personal information to anyone, but “there are some circumstances where we share information with third parties, which are listed in Google's Privacy Policy. And in these cases, we will have previously asked you to give us permission to share that information with that service.” 

Apple HomePod: If you’d like to stop your HomePod speaker from listening for your commands, you can simply say “Hey, Siri, stop listening.” Or, from the Home app on your iPhone or iPad, go to Rooms > HomePod > Details > and disable Listen for Hey Siri. To remove your voice data on your iPhone and iPad, turn off both Ask Siri (Settings > Siri) and Dictation (Settings > General > Keyboard). Note that Apple’s privacy policy says that your voice records may be kept for an undisclosed period of time.

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