Media and contractors from Amazon, Google, Apple and Microsoft listen to recordings of your conversations with voice assistants like Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri, Cortana. Here's how to prevent humans from listening.
Why do businesses listen to these recordings?
Technology companies have employees, or more often subcontractors, listen to excerpts of conversations you have with voice assistants and other services. These are anonymised, which means that contractors can not see your name or any personal information. Most conversations are never listened to. But companies can ask a subcontractor to listen to a few seconds of recordings later and see how the assistant was successful.
For example, if the assistant did not understand your question or gave a wrong answer, the contractor can note what happened. Developers can then use this information to improve the wizard and its capabilities. Many companies take a look at the data you store with them and use the information that they find for a variety of purposes.
All of this is allowed in the fine print that you have already accepted when registering for one of these services. But many people are surprised to hear it. And, since voice assistants can accidentally activate in the middle of a conversation, it means that people might end up hearing snippets of potentially personal information.
Which companies are listening?
Almost all companies offering a type of voice-controlled service have someone to listen to at some point. Here are some recent stories:
- Amazon workers listen to Alexa audio clips, according to one Bloomberg report of April 10, 2019. The report indicates that thousands of workers around the world are listening.
- Google's subcontractors listened to some Google Assistant clips, according to a Belgian public broadcaster VRT in a report published on July 10, 2019.
- Apple's subcontractors regularly listened to Siri recordings. Entrepreneurs say they "often hear about drugs, medical details and sex," according to a report by The Guardian July 26, 2019.
- Microsoft's subcontractors listen to Cortana's voice commands and even some of some Skype calls, according to one Motherboard report of August 7, 2019.
Despite the sordid details, most recordings are never listened to. For example, Google said wired "About 0.2% of all recordings" are listened to.
Apple and Google have stopped listening (for the moment)
Apple and Google both have press the pause button and do not listen to these recordings for the moment.
Apple said it would pursue "grading" – what it calls a human revision of Siri records – at a later date. The company said it had suspended the rating "while we are conducting a thorough review". In a future version of Apple's operating systems, you can choose to participate in the ranking.
Google also said that it was suspending the human review of these recordings "for at least three months from August 1, 2019."
How to prevent Google from storing your records
Although Google's contractors do not listen to your records at this time, Google continues to collect recordings that may be listened to in the future. You can manage your voice activity if you want Google to stop collecting it or if you want to delete voice commands already collected.
To do this, visit Activity Checks page for your Google Account. Locate "Audio and Voice Activity" here. To prevent Google from storing new voice recordings, turn off this option – this collection "Pauses" until you re-enable this option.
To delete already collected recordings, click "Manage Activity" under Audio and Audio Activity. You will see all your voice activity stored. Use the options below to delete the activity you do not want Google to keep.
For example, to delete all your stored audio recordings, click "Delete Activity By," select "All Time," and then click "Delete."
How to stop Amazon from listening to Alexa records
You can disable human review of your Alexa records via a new option. Amazon began offering this control on August 2, 2019.
As the page explains, "When this setting is enabled, your voice recordings can be used to develop new features and manually revised to enhance our services. Only a very small fraction of the voice recordings are manually reviewed. "
How to prevent Microsoft from listening to Cortana recordings
You may want to prevent Microsoft from listening to excerpts from your conversations on Skype. Unfortunately, there is no way to do this, apart from leaving Skype on you and using another voice or video call service.
For Cortana, you can at least stop a human revision of your Cortana voice commands and conversations. To do this from a Windows 10 PC, go to Settings> Privacy> Speech. Disable the "Speech Recognition Online" option here. (You can tap Windows + I to quickly open the Settings window from anywhere under Windows.)
We hope that companies will be more transparent about how they use these voice recordings and will offer clearer options for unsubscribing later.