Are our phones and smart assistants always listening and recording everything we say? Many people believe they are, and no doubt someone has told you their anecdotal creepy story — you may even have one of your own.
If you have “OK Google” or “Hey Siri” enabled on your phone, it is indeed always listening for those trigger phrases. Google and Apple have both said phones don’t start recording until they hear those triggers. But Dr. Peter Hannay, with cybersecurity firm Asterisk, told Vice, “Apps like Facebook or Instagram could have thousands of triggers.”
We may not know what phrases could prompt those apps to start recording. But know that those apps can only record if you’ve given them microphone access on your phone. If the possibility that various apps could be recording you at any time bothers you, cut off mic access. On an iPhone, go to Settings>Privacy>Microphone and turn off access to any app that has requested use of your microphone. On an Android, the process will vary according to the manufacturer, but try looking in App permissions on the Apps & notifications screen.
Again, turn off microphone access to any apps where the recording capability makes you uncomfortable. Banning microphone access could prove frustrating, though, if you like to post videos to social media that include sound.
For the record, Facebook has said it “does not use your phone’s microphone to inform ads or to change what you see in News Feed.”
Last year, Facebook’s vice president of ads, Rob Goldman, told USA Today that the company has “no plans to do so in the future.” That still doesn’t mean Facebook couldn’t change its mind at any time. And the company knows more about you than you may realize. Every like, follow, post, comment and private message creates a fuller profile of who you are. Maybe you liked someone else’s photos of their trip to Thailand, and maybe you’ve posted photos of Spring Break in the past, so Facebook knows you have another one coming up. That could explain the ad about a vacation, even though you didn’t actively search for one recently.
If you still don’t like the idea of your phone recording you, turn off all the triggers that would prompt the phone to start recording. On iPhones, turn off the functions for “Hey Siri”, “Press Side Button for Siri” and “Allow Siri When Locked” by going to Settings>Siri & Search.
To turn off the “OK Google” function on Android phones, go to Settings>Google>Search & Now>Voice.
Another gadget that is always listening is a smart home assistant like Alexa or Google Home. Similar to your phone, these devices are waiting for you to call out their name so they can tell you about the weather, or the score from last night’s game, or play music. Once someone says “Alexa” or “OK Google,” the device starts recording in order to fulfill your request. But did you know these companies not only record, but save every single request you make of your Echo or your Home Mini? It’s true, and oftentimes a few seconds before and after your request are saved and stored as well. The good news is you can pull up every one of those recordings, listen to them (if you have a lot of time on your hands), delete the ones you don’t want stored, or get rid of all the recordings in one fell swoop.
To hear and possibly delete any or all Alexa requests, pull up the Alexa app and go to Settings>History. Amazon warns that your Alexa experience may not be as great if you delete all the voice recordings because it uses that information to learn and give better answers each time. If you don’t want Alexa to always be listening, simply turn off the microphone on the device itself until you’re ready to make a request. When you need Alexa’s help, you will need to press that on/off button to get her help once again.1 comment on this story
To delete recordings saved by Google from your Google Home requests, log in to your Google account, click on your profile picture and then go to Manage accounts>Google Activity Controls>Manage Activity. You can also mute the microphone on the device itself with a simple on/off toggle switch. Just remember you must hit that switch again if you want to call out “OK Google” to make a request.
Once again, this is an issue that may come down to privacy versus convenience. Which is more important to you? Not sure? Maybe ask Alexa.
Click here to watch Amy Iverson discuss this topic on KSL 5's "Studio 5."