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Tech Tips: Minimize the different risks of voice activation

Triona Guidry
Triona Guidry

Voice activation is everywhere, but there are growing concerns about how services like Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, and Apple Siri are storing and using consumer data. How can you minimize the risks while still taking advantage of voice activation?

Many people find voice activation convenient. For some, like seniors and people with disabilities, it’s less a convenience than a necessity. 

Voice activation is being built into everything: phones, smart home gadgets, cars, you name it.

As with the Internet of Things (everyday products that are Internet-enabled), voice activation is being thrown into all sorts of products as a marketing feature.

But some say this technology is being developed so quickly that consumer privacy ends up an afterthought. The risks have become all too clear in recent months as company after company has revealed that their human employees or contractors are storing and listening to consumer voice requests, in the name of fine-tuning their services.

Some consumers have also discovered that audio not intended for the voice assistant has been disseminated without their knowledge. In one notable case reported by The Guardian, an Alexa device mistakenly thought it heard its “wake word,” captured audio not intended for it, and sent the recorded conversation to a random contact.

The problem is not isolated to one company.

It’s inherent to the way voice activated assistants work. In order to hear its wake word, a voice assistant must always be listening. Because the technology is not perfect, sometimes devices either don’t hear their wake word, or mistake something else for it.

As a result of the negative backlash from consumers, Apple, Amazon, Google, and others have begun to provide more details about their voice activation policies, and have offered consumers better tools to control when and how their voice data is used.

One way to prevent problems, of course, is to avoid using voice activation. That’s more difficult than it sounds. Your phone may have the capability turned on by default, and other devices in your house might as well. And it’s not just your own devices, but those around you. 

There could be an active assistant anywhere you go, whether it’s a friend’s house, the gym, or a coffee shop.

Most voice assistants have an option to turn off the microphone. If you’re not using the voice assistant on your phone, for example, you can disable its access to the microphone. You can also turn off the microphone on smart speakers as needed.

I suggest that you take advantage of the new tools tech companies have made available to monitor and control your voice data. This typically includes the ability to review your recorded history and delete specific recordings. You may also be able to opt out of allowing your voice data to be used to improve services. When setting up a new voice assistant, check the support site to learn how you can lock down security.

You’ll find links on my Tech Tips blog to the relevant Amazon, Google, Apple, and Microsoft sites, so that you can find out more about their voice activation policies and learn how to disable or delete your voice assistant recordings.

• Triona Guidry is a computer specialist and freelance writer. Her Tech Tips blog at www.lightningtechsupport.com offers help and advice for Windows and Mac users.

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