A surge in popularity for smart speakers – judged by last year’s Black Friday events – means roughly one in five homes have one. What are these devices listening to, though?

Alexa and Google Home devices are the most popular smart-home hubs, giving users an effortless way to manage their home, life, and entertainment.

Increasingly, however, we see more unnerving revelations about Amazon and Google listening in on customers in their own homes.

A BBC Panorama documentary aired recently outlined exactly how much data Amazon stores on its customers, and how the once online shopping platform may have turned into a global surveillance giant.

So how do you stop Alexa from listening in on private conversations?

You can actually limit what Alexa hears by going into the Alexa app settings and deselecting “Help improve Amazon services and develop new features”. This means Amazon, and the similar alternatives on Google and Apple devices, decrease the amount of data it stores about you.

You can of course go into the bathroom and run all the taps to create some white noise so they can’t hear you. Alternatively, it is possible to temporarily turn off the microphones.

Smart speakers use activation words to prompt them to act on what you say. I have Amazon’s version of the smart speaker at home, and I have mentioned odd terms and phrases to see if any reference to them pops up in, for instance, online adverts. Nothing so far, but it doesn’t stop me trying!

Occasionally, the device in our lounge is activated by something that was said on the TV. We have used the live pause feature on our TV subscription service to rewind and determine which words or sounds had caused the phantom wake-up. 

Working from home: confidential conversations

As most of us are now working from home and still engaging in business conversations, these smart speakers are still listening. They can be woken up by the normal activation words, or by something that sounds similar – the only tell-tale sign that they are listening is normally an LED light that displays on the top, something easily missed.

If you are having sensitive, private conversations and want to keep them that way, consider turning the mic off.

Or just run the taps.

Find out more about QA's Cyber Security courses.

Helpful advice for home-working

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