Are Your Devices Listening and Recording Everything?

Category: Gadgets , Privacy

As the Internet of Things (IoT) expands, many people are becoming concerned about which of these “smart” devices are listening to them, what they are recording, what is transmitted to their creators, and how to stop the eavesdropping. So-called “digital assistants” such as Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa are under heightened suspicion because they are voice-activated. Are these tools always listening, recording, and sharing our private conversations with unknown parties? Read on for answers...

Which Devices Are Listening to You?

First off, it’s important to note there’s a big difference between “listening” and “recording.” Yes, digital assistants are always listening. So are smart TVs, smartphones, and anything else that is voice-activated. There is no other way they can respond to voice commands. But they don’t record everything they hear, or transmit it back to the Mother Ship.

Every voice-activated device has a “wake-word” that tells it the following words are intended as a command for it to process. “Siri, call John Doe,” “Alexa, what’s the weather like,” "Hey Cortana, launch Microsoft Word" or “OK, Google, find me a good restaurant nearby” are examples of wake-words followed by commands. Once a command is processed, the digital assistant goes back to “sleep,” passively listening for its wake-word.

Only these commands, plus the digital assistant’s response, are recorded and stored on the servers of the assistant’s creator. The purpose is to train the assistant to better understand your spoken commands and respond appropriately. For example, “OK, Google, I said ‘what’s the weather,’ not ‘what’s leather.’”

Which devices are listening and recording?

In an Arkansas murder case, prosecutors demanded from Amazon all recordings that a suspect’s Echo device had made on the day of the crime. This action fed rumors that Alexa records more than just commands. But that’s simply not true. To Amazon’s credit, the company refused to turn over said recordings without a search warrant, until the suspect himself gave the okay.

If you’re still nervous about a digital assistant eavesdropping on non-command verbalizations, you can buy an Amazon Tap device that requires your physical touch on a button to commence listening and recording.

Smartphones may be listening to you, too. You can stop that in Android by going to Settings > Privacy and safety > App permissions and looking for the “microphone” entry, which lists all apps that have access to the phone’s mic. Turn off said access as you wish. On iOS devices, the path to the microphone entry is Settings > Privacy.

Smart TVs May Be a Dumb Idea

Smart TVs are made by people who literally don’t know what they’re doing. When LG Electronics was asked if its smart TVs record non-command conversations, the company replied, in essence, “We’ll have to look into that and get back to you.” Furthermore, the TV’s setting to toggle collection of viewing info did nothing when switched to “off.” Data continued to be transmitted to an unknown destination.

Vizo, maker of inexpensive and popular smart TVs, was smacked down for spying on its customers by the FTC in February, 2017. The company agreed to pay a $2.2 million fine and stop collecting data on viewing habits without permission.

The CIA and the UK’s spy agency, MI5, collaborated on hacking smart TVs, according to documents in a batch of top-secret material released by Wikileaks in March, 2017. It turns out that smart TV programmers aren’t very smart; a South Korean hacker documented 10 security vulnerabilities that gave him root access to a smart TV made by “an unnamed vendor.” Bottom line: if a hacker can get access to the home network, he can take complete control of the TV’s microphone, motion sensors, camera, and Internet connection.

It may be best to buy a “dumb” TV, or disconnect a smart TV from the Internet if you already have one. You can reset the smart TV to factory defaults and set it up all over again. When it asks for your WiFi password, don’t provide it. If it asks you to plug in an Ethernet cable, don’t do that either. (Of course, that will eliminate the TV's ability to stream online content such as Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime.)

How to Manage What Your Gadgets Hear

It may be comforting to know that Cortana on Windows 10 doesn't start listening until you click on the search box. Also, both the Amazon Echo and the Google Home have mute buttons, which temporarily disable the microphone. If you want to minimize the devices that are always listening to you in your home, opt for the Amazon Tap, or the Alexa remote for Fire TV, which require you to push a button to enable voice commands.

Alexa users can find a running list of their queries in the Alexa app in Settings > History. If a user has several Alexa devices in their arsenal, each one has its own listenable queue of requests.

Google and Amazon provide ways to review and manage the audio clips that their digital assistants have recorded. Google users can find everything they’ve asked Google Assistant to do by visiting You can even listen to and delete the audio clips stored there. Amazon Alexa users can do the same by visiting and clicking the “Your Devices” tab; select your Alexa and click “Manage voice recordings” to review or delete items.

To manage the Cortana data stored on your Windows 10 computer, select Cortana from the Start Menu, and click the Notebook item in the left sidebar. From there, you can view and delete entries in Cortana’s “Notebook,” which contains all the information Cortana has stored for you.

Do you use voice activated devices? Are you concerned about what they might be recording? Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Are Your Devices Listening and Recording Everything?"

Posted by:

Len B
01 May 2017

Using devices such as the Amazon Tap still doesn't guarantee privacy. You need to put your trust the device provider - they could still carry on recording. How would you khow?

Posted by:

Ken Mitchell
01 May 2017

I have no "smart" devices or anything in the "Internet of Things" category. I've disabled Siri unless I PUSH THE BUTTON. Ditto for "OK Google"; it doesn't listen until I push the button on my phone. Ditto Cortana. If I want my computer to listen to me, I have to DO SOMETHING PHYSICALLY to make that happen. I have a physical USB webcam, which I plug in when I need it and unplug when I'm done. A new laptop with a built-in webcam has a piece of electrician's tape over the lens (with a small piece of tissue paper to prevent getting goo on the lens on the off-chance that I'll ever want to use that.)

When the IoT things are less trivially hackable, I _MIGHT_ consider buying one. But not yet!

It's not that I'm paranoid; I post here using my real name, and my email is easily linked to my name, phone number and home address. But having an IoT device is like living in a glass house without curtains.

Posted by:

01 May 2017

No, my devices are not spying on me because I don't have any, except my cell phone. See? I'm smarter than the smart devices. The crooks are counting on people being lazy. I still remember having to get out of the chair and walk across the room to adjust the black and white TV so I could watch Jack Benny.

Posted by:

Kenneth Heikkila
01 May 2017

Thank you Bob. I love your no nonsense answers to the important tech questions of the day.
I also enjoy reading to paranoid musings of some of your readers, though not as much as the intelligent comments.

Posted by:

Jay R
01 May 2017

MikieB, I have a word for you, "Well".
Thank you for the post.

Posted by:

02 May 2017

How can you trust that a IoT device actually turns off the microphone or camera when commanded to do so? Even if it did, many can be hacked and used to record by other people. Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA was able to enable camera's and microphones that were turned off. In addition, many companies cannot resist the temptation to gather information about you to sell for a fortune. Even if they currently don't record, nothing is stopping them from doing it in the future.

Posted by:

02 May 2017

How about OnStar and other auto systems.

Posted by:

02 May 2017

Yes Mike, OnStar can be turned on and listen even if you are not a subscriber.

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