USA TODAY Tech columnist Kim Komando explains how to keep your devices from listening to what you say. Kim Komando, Special for USA Today
Yes, voice technology is amazing. You can ask your phone a question. You can talk to your speaker system and even book an Uber. With the right setup, you can verbally lock the doors in your house, dim the lights, and change the thermostat. All across America, people are embracing their oral fixation.
Virtual assistants are handy, but they’re always listening. As more manufacturers and developers jump onto the audio tracking bandwagon, you may wonder how much your devices are recording. And what happens to the audio files they gather?
Worst of all: apps that use ultrasonic data to profile you. You don’t hear the tones, but your device does. More about that later. Some regular apps are designed to spy and report back recordings. Read more on five spy apps that could be on your phone watching and listening right now.
Creeped out? Many people are. Lots of consumers don’t trust their virtual assistants and wonder how to switch them off. If you’re worried about the privacy risks of your smartphone’s always-on microphone, here are tips on how to turn it off:
When you put the Facebook app on your phone, it requests access to your microphone. Why? Facebook needs to record your voice when you shoot live video. But some people are wary of this. Does the app only record you when you’re on camera? Or is Facebook “listening” through your microphone?
Facebook denies these claims, and there is no solid evidence to support this fear. But you are absolutely welcome to sever the tie between app and microphone. Many people have no use for this access anyway, so there’s nothing to lose by switching it off.
If you are an iPhone user, go to Settings >> Facebook >> Settings >> slide the Microphone switch to the left so it turns from green to white. That turns it off. Alternatively, you can go to Settings >> Privacy >> Microphone >> look for Facebook then do the same. Note that you can toggle the mic on and off for other apps, too.
For Android users: Try Settings >> Applications >> Application Manager >> look for Facebook >> Permissions >> Turn off the mic.
If you do decide to shoot video later on, just return to those settings and re-establish a connection to your mic. You can always switch it off again when you’re done.
Is Amazon Echo always listening? Alexa is activated when it detects one of its wake words, which are “Alexa,” “Amazon,” “Computer,” or “Echo.” You’ll know that the device is ready for a command when the outer ring at the top glows blue. But until that happens, Alexa always has open ears, waiting to be addressed.
When activated, Alexa allows you to search the web, play music, and even control other smart home devices you’ve added to your home network. For example, with the right smart gadgets, you can turn off the lights in another room, lock the front door, turn up the thermostat, etc.
The downside is that Amazon keeps an audio recording of every voice command you’ve issued to Alexa. When you give a command to Alexa, a recording of that command is stored on Amazon’s servers.
According to Amazon, there is also a fraction of a second of audio before the wake word that is stored along with each recording. That fraction of a second gets saved along with your main command, and the recording ends after the command has been processed.
I was surprised when I checked my Amazon Echo recordings. In one recording, I was explaining why I wasn’t taking a deal on a commercial building that I had for sale. You should take a moment and check your recordings. Learn how to hear all your Amazon Echo recordings and delete them, too.
Like the Echo, Siri is always attentive, even when you’ve forgotten your iPhone can hear you. With iOS 8, Apple introduced the “Hey Siri” wake phrase, so you can summon Siri without even touching your iPhone. If you turn this feature on, this means your iPhone’s mic is always listening, waiting for the phrase “Hey Siri.”
Apple says this is processed locally on the device and your iOS device does not start recording your voice until it hears “Hey Siri.” Once your request is recorded, it then uploads the audio file to Apple’s servers for processing.
But that may still give you the willies, and luckily, you don’t have to disable Siri completely to stop the “Hey Siri” feature. Here’s the easiest way to turn off “Hey Siri”: Navigate to your iOS device’s Settings >> General >> Siri, then toggle Allow “Hey Siri” to off.
Google wants more voice-activated tech, and the company recently released its latest masterpiece, “OK Google.” This serves as Google’s new wake phrase, just like “Alexa” and “Hey Siri,” calling the attention Google Assistant on Google Home speakers, Android smartphones, and the Chrome browser.
Every time you use “OK Google” or use another voice-controlled function, your request is recorded and the snippets are saved to your Google account.
Luckily, Google introduced a new My Account tool that lets you access your recordings and delete them if you want. You can also tell Google to stop recording your voice for good.
Here’s how to turn off the “OK Google ” wake phrase: On Android, just go to Settings >> Google >> Search & Now >> Voice and turn “Ok Google” detection off.
Want a shocker? How to hear everything you’ve ever said to Google.
Finally, there is Cortana, the voice-activated system from Microsoft. Similar to the other on this list, Cortana can answer questions, do searches, set appointments, and open applications. The wake phrase is “Hey Cortana.” Just like the others, Cortana has raised some eyebrows.
Here’s how to turn off “Hey Cortana”: Open Cortana on your Windows computer, select the Notebook icon in the right column, click on Settings then toggle “Hey Cortana” to off.
Brace yourself, because ultrasonic technology is hard to fathom. Some ingenious programmers create apps that can track high-frequency sounds. Humans can’t hear them, but certain receivers can. Your smartphone or tablet can spy on you using sound waves you don’t even know are there.
Why would anyone want to collect these ultrasonic sounds? Because marketers can use the information, they collect to tailor their advertisements to you. The apps are looking for “beacons,” tiny auditory clues that suggest where you shop and what you like to buy. Marketers then pair browser cookies to track a single user’s behavior across multiple devices.
In fact, hundreds of Android apps are already using ultrasonic sounds to track user behavior. These behaviors include physical location and TV viewing habits. Read more about this new tracking.
In response, Google announced that Android apps that use ultrasonic tracking would be banned or suspended. Developers will have to prove they adhere to Google Play Store’s updated privacy policies. The new policies require developers to disclose an app’s ultrasonic features and ask a user’s permission before accessing a gadget’s mic. So if you’re worried about ultrasonic tracking, check the permissions before you install an Android app.
Cutting off your microphone may give you peace of mind, but remember that disabling mics make speakers and virtual assistants much less useful. The ever-listening nature of these smart virtual assistants is what makes them compelling. Hopefully, developers will soon find a good compromise between security and ease of use.
How else can you protect yourself from cyber-security issues? Call my national radio show and click here to find it on your local radio station. You can listen to the Kim Komando Show on your phone, tablet or computer. From buying advice to digital life issues, click here for my free podcasts.