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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

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AMAZON

When you type words into your search engine such as “vacation” or “trip,” seeing airline or hotel ads pop up on websites you read later is no coincidence.

Sound familiar? 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 and no.

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These devices aren’t listening to your conversations. But once you enable the microphone by saying its wake word on a smart speaker or pressing a microphone button on, say, a smart TV remote, whatever you say next likely will be used to better market products to you.

Most of us blindly allow companies to use our information when we click OK on the fine-print agreements we see as we set up our gadgets. After all, the terms and conditions legalese can be difficult to decipher. Still, many users are understandably concerned about Big Brother.

What’s done with your data?

Your data is valuable to all kinds of companies. Smart TV makers may want to know what you’re asking to view and could sell this information to eager advertisers.

Similarly, what you listen to on your smart speaker, the kinds of social media posts you like, or what you’re typing into search engines is all valuable to the companies that provide these services, as well as advertisers, data brokers, search and browser companies and social media platforms.

Companies will tell you targeted ads help you see more relevant information and give you a better experience with your browsing session. If you “like” 👍 and comment on Facebook posts tied to playing golf, you may see more golf-related ads in your web browser — instead of seeing ads about playing drums.

Or by allowing your smartphone to reveal location information when you type "coffee" in Google Maps, it will show you what's near you and not in another city or state. You get the idea.

It should be noted that advertisers don’t know you by name. Rather, all your info is anonymized. But many people still feel the practice is, well, creepy.

Smart speakers have another reason to record and process what you say: It helps make the experience better over time with your Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod or Google Home device. The data can make your interaction with the digital assistant more accurate and faster as it learns how you say certain words.

Data can be shared among devices, too

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Google Assistant can be found built into devices other than its Nest series of smart speakers. The Harman Kardon Citation One MKIII was introduced in 2022.
GETTY IMAGES

Recordings of your voice also personalize your device, allowing it to give better suggestions and answers. If you train your smart speaker to recognize the voices in your household, it gives you custom information. Ask what’s on tap for the day and hear only your specific calendar entries instead of the whole family’s.

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Your speakers also can 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, you may find pet nutrition ads when you launch your Google Chrome browser.

Smart speakers themselves are actually quite dumb. The hardware itself is a conduit for uploading your queries over the internet to servers that process your requests and 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, “Hey, Siri” for Apple HomePod or “OK, Google” for Google Home — does the speaker start listening.

How to turn your smart speaker, TV 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 intuitive compared to typing, 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 automatic content recognition (ACR) technology. But how you go about it will vary with your TV’s make and model.

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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.

On your Amazon Echo or Google Home smart speakers, mute the speaker by pressing a button on the top or back of the device. With Apple’s HomePod, you can ask Siri to mute the speaker or use the app to disable it.

To delete information already saved:

Apple HomePod. If you would 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 | Listen for Hey Siri and turn the switch off.

To remove your voice data on your iPhone and iPad, turn off both Ask Siri in Settings | Siri and Dictation in Settings | General | Keyboard. Note that Apple’s privacy policy says that your voice records may be kept for an undisclosed period.

Amazon Echo. In your Alexa app, go to Settings | Alexa Privacy | Review Voice History and delete everything. Alternatively, sign in at amazon.com and click Account & Lists | Content & Devices | Echo Dot (or another device) | Manage voice recordings. A pop-up will give you the chance to clear it out.

These recordings are securely stored in the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud and tied to your Amazon account to allow the service to be personalized to you, Amazon says. They are stored until customers choose to delete them.

Google Home. Go to myactivity.google.com and tap or click Web & App Activity. Here you can review and delete activity across all Google services you’re signed into.

Google says it does not sell your personal information to anyone, but it has caveats: “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 devices allow you 'not to track'

Starting in spring 2021, Apple users may have noticed a pop-up screen on their Apple TV, iPad and iPhone that asks if companies can track you across apps and websites. A social media platform such as Instagram or a game like Candy Crush may want to know where you were online before you opened the app, so it can better target ads to you.

If you see a request to track your activity, you can tap Allow or Ask App Not to Track. You can still use the full capabilities of the app without allowing it to track your activity.

You will still see advertisements. That’s how these free apps and websites make their money, but the ads won’t necessarily be relevant to you.

An app developer can customize part of the message to explain why the app is asking to track your activity. You also can visit the app’s product page in the App Store for more details about how the app developer uses your data.