If you got an Amazon Echo or Google Home voice assistant, welcome to a life of luxurious convenience. You’ll be asking for the weather, the news, and your favorite songs without having to poke around on your phone. You’ll be turning off lights and requesting videos from bed. The world is yours.
But you know what? That little talking cylinder is always listening to you. And not just listening, but recording and saving many of the things you say. Should you freak out? Not if you’re comfortable with Google and Amazon logging your normal web activity, which they’ve done for years. Hell, many other sites have also done it for years. Echo and Home simply continue the trend of saving a crumb trail of queries, except with snippets of your voice.
However, it’s still a reasonable concern for anyone worried about privacy. If you only use Chrome in “Incognito Mode,” put tape over your laptop camera, and worry about snoops sniffing your packets, a web-connected microphone in your home seems risky. It’s a fair thing to be unsettled about. But recording your voice is a major part of how voice assistants work. Here’s how devices like Echo and Home record your voice, why they do it, what they do with the data, and how to scrub those recordings.
How In-Home Voice Assistants Work
Whenever you make a voice request, Google Home and Alexa-enabled devices record or stream audio clips of what you say. Those files are sent to a server—the real brains of the operation—to process the audio and formulate a response. The recorded clips are associated to your user account, and that process is enabled by default.
Because their brains are located miles away, Echo and Home need an internet connection to work. They do have a very rudimentary education, though: The only spoken commands they understand on their own are “wake words” or “activation phrases,” things like “Alexa” or “OK Google.” Once you say those magic words, the voice assistants jump to life, capture your voice request, and sling it to their disembodied cloud brains over Wi-Fi.