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Are My Devices Spying On Me?

If you’ve ever said “Hey Siri” or “OK Google” to your phone, you know that voice-activated personal assistants are convenient, time-saving and even fun. And if you’ve ever gotten directions from your phone or set a pick-up point for an Uber, you know that the GPS feature is immensely helpful.

Our phones aren’t the only devices listening to us and tracking what we do. New standalone voice-activated personal assistants, like the Amazon Echo and Google Home, bring the always-listening functionality previously locked into our phones to our living rooms, kitchens and bedrooms.

Smart TVs are also collecting our information: television manufacturer Visio was recently found to be tracking viewing habits and selling the information like viewing habits, household size, marital status, income, education and home ownership status to third parties, and was forced to pay $2.2 million dollars to settle a lawsuit.

Heather Crawford, assistant professor at Florida Tech’s Harris Institute for Assured Information and the College of Engineering and Computing, tells Florida Tech Today Magazine that such spying might not be a “clear-cut case of privacy violation.” That’s because users typically rush through the end-user agreement instead of reading the fine print, and agree to have data collected and distributed. Also, settings regarding data collecting may be difficult to find.

So many of our devices are tracking what we say and what we do. Is that spying? Yes. Is that a bad thing? Maybe not, if you’re willing to trade privacy for advanced features.

You’re Always on the Map

The GPS modules built into our phones are incredibly useful, but they can be used to create a digital map of where you are and have been. There are many implications to this:

  • Facebook messages can be tagged to include your geographic location
  • GPS coordinates can be embedded into photographs
  • Marketers can send you offers and track interest based on your location

You probably gave your phone permission to track this information when you set it up. Fortunately, unlike with the Visio TVs, it’s easy to change the location settings on an iPhone or Android phone.

Your Devices are Always Listening

With the default settings turned on, your iPhone or Android phone is always listening in the background, waiting for you to say the trigger phase (“Hey Siri” or “OK Google”) that informs the device you’re about to ask a question or say a command.

Today, there are also standalone devices, such as Amazon Echo and Google Home, that are designed to stay in one place and work as a voice-activated personal assistant.

For many people, the question might not be “Am I scared about this?” but “Do I care about this?”

Google and Amazon have been recording your digital activities for many years, so recording your voice may not be a primary concern.

Is It Worth the Tradeoff?

When it comes to voice-activated personal assistants, users might be willing overlook any privacy concerns because Alexa, Siri and Google Now are incredibly useful and provide a high level of functionality. It’s easy to sit on the couch and say “Siri, dim the lights” or “Alexa, turn the thermostat down two degrees.” And, if you’re confused while cooking and your hands are dirty, you can always say, “OK Google, how many cups are in a quart?” Since Alexa is tied to the world’s largest e-commerce site, Amazon allows voice-activated shopping and will sometimes offer deals only for Echo users.

However, the kinds of users that put masking tape over their webcams might be more sensitive to the security concerns presented by Siri, Google Now and Alexa. Only they can decide whether they want to tolerate always-on listening devices.

Steps to Take if You’re Concerned

If you’re concerned about privacy, there are a few steps you can take:

  • Always read the fine print in the end-user agreements for your new electronic products.
  • Change the location settings for your entire phone, or set them for specific apps.
  • Turn off the Siri or Google Now voice activation settings on your phone. These are typically found in system settings, and you can still access the personal assistant by pressing a button.
  • Turn off the microphone on your Amazon Echo or Google Home when you’re not using the devices. The microphone on/off button is on the top of the Amazon Echo and the back of the Google Home.
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