Is Your Smart Device Spying on You?

Binoculars behind cell phone
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The short answer is sort of yes, they're spying on you. The thing is, they have to always be listening if they are supposed to respond to you. So, our take is you should be cautious but not worried.

Just about every "smart" device that is connected to the internet and offers personalized services is spying on you. Google, for example, keeps a list of websites you've visited, apps you've used, where you've traveled and a cache of everything you've said after, "OK Google" when using Google Now or Google Assistant.

In order to know what the traffic will be like on your commute home, Google has to know where you live as well as the average driving time for other Google users along the same route. In order to make a reasonable recommendation for what movie you'd like to watch next. Netflix has to know what you've watched in the past. Your Nest thermostat has to know your temperature preferences as well as your schedule in order to save you money on your heating bill. And any apps that rely on advertising revenue need to know what you like in order to know what you're likely to buy. This is the price you have to pay for personalization.

That doesn't mean you should sit back and accept this as nothing but beneficial. There is a big potential for abuse when your personal data is stored in the cloud because a hacker could find out when you're likely to be home as well as when you're not home. Your information could also be sold to a third party without your knowledge.

Let's explore a few common microphones and cameras that may be spying on you right now. Then you can decide if there's anything you don't like and you can make a few changes.

Smart Home Virtual Assistants: Amazon Echo and Google Home

Amazon Echo (Alexa), Google Home, and other similar virtual assistant devices are all voice-powered devices that, when on, listen for a key phrase, hot words or the "wake word", that will activate them.

The Amazon Echo, for example, listens for "Alexa" by default, while Google Home listens for "OK, Google." 

The devices are then recording what you say after you activate it, such as "Alexa, tell me a joke" or "OK Google, do I need an umbrella?"

What is the risk? 

The worry about the Amazon Echo, in particular, comes from a murder investigation in which the police asked for all the recordings from the home's Amazon Echo.

You might be (rightfully) wondering to yourself, "Is Amazon recording my whole life? Is there some database of everything I've ever said in my living room?" Generally speaking, your Amazon Echo or Google Home is just going to keep track of what you say after you activate it with the hot words. You can log into Amazon and see the recordings Amazon has made and retained under your name. 

That doesn't mean that you might not say something that sounds like "Alexa" on accident, or that Alexa won't activate and order you a dollhouse after a TV segment about Alexa ordering a dollhouse airs.

Find All Amazon Alexa Recordings

  1. Go to Amazon Devices 
  2. Select your Echo
  3. Select Manage Recordings

You can find and delete your recordings. 

Change Alexa's Name

You can change Alexa's wake word on Amazon.com to avoid accidentally waking her up:

  1. Go to alexa.amazon.com.
  2. Select Settings.
  3. Select a device if you have more than one. 
  4. Click Wake Word.
  5. Click to open the drop-down menu and select either Amazon or Echo.
  6. Save your changes. 

You can also require a speakable confirmation code before authorizing purchases or just turn off the ability to purchase things through Amazon Echo completely (the best option for families with young kids). 

Google Home does not currently allow you to change the "hotword" from "OK Google." 

Mute Amazon Echo or Google Home's Microphone

When you are not using your virtual assistant, plug its ears. You may also want to turn off your Google Home if it keeps answering questions you're trying to ask your Android phone.

Both the Amazon Echo and Google Home have a microphone button that you can toggle on and off. 

You can also instruct Google Home to stop listening "OK Google, Turn off the microphone." Google Home should confirm that it is off, and the lights should also be off. Once you command Google Home to turn off the mic, it will not obey a verbal command to turn it back on (which is as it should be.) You will have to turn Google Home back on using the button on the device itself. 

Alexa does not know how to obey a voice command to mute the mic, so you have to use the physical button to turn it off, too. Like Google Home, you should see lights indicating when your Amazon Echo is "awake" and listening.

Are muted microphones still listening to me? It is unlikely that this is the case, but since the microphones are controlled by software, there may be some unknown spying capabilities inside the virtual assistants. Unplug the power cord if you're still worried.

Smart TVs and Game Consoles

Your Xbox Kinect is, similar to Amazon and Google devices, listening for you to say "Xbox" in order to start obeying vocal commands. "Xbox, open Netflix." "Xbox, play Fruit Ninja." The cameras are also watching for you to wave in order to start using gesture control and face recognition. However, the Xbox i more sophisticated, and therefore more of a potential spying threat. The Xbox is of particular concern because of concerns from several years ago that the Xbox could potentially be used by British and American intelligence agencies for spying on civilians. There's no evidence it actually was used for this purpose, and Microsoft tried to get ahead of the issue by assuring users that the Xbox One's always-on mic could be temporarily disabled through the settings menu.

When you're not using your Xbox, turn it off. If you're still concerned, put the unit on a power strip and, after powering down your Xbox using the power button, turn off the power on the power strip. 

Some smart TVs or TV devices (such as the Amazon Fire TV) have microphones either on the TV or remote that allow you to use voice commands. But the more common spying associated with smart TVs is your metadata. Internet-connected TVs can track your viewing habits and use them to sell advertising. Vizio was guilty of overreach by selling viewing data without user's permission. 

If you don't need your TV to be quite so smart, WIRED has a set of instructions on how to turn off those features on most brands of smart TVs. 

Controlling Your Computer's Microphone and Camera

Your computer, by far, has the most potential to spy on you. And that's beyond the usual data mining from Facebook, Microsoft, or Google.

Because your computer is meant to be modified with new software, it's more sophisticated than virtual assistants and voice-activated appliances. That new software is supposed to offer fixes and improvements, but, unfortunately, you could be infected with spying malware. That kind of software could track your keystrokes or secretly spy on you through the webcam. It's possible for malicious software to activate the webcam or mic without activating the indicator light. 

Our best advice is to keep your virus protection up to date.

It's sounds awfully rudimentary, but we also recommend covering your webcam with a sticky note when you're not using it and unplugging any USB webcams when they're not in use. Cover your computer's built-in mic with tape and use a USB microphone or headset when you need to use it. On the plus side, you'll get better sound quality that way, anyway. 

If you're using a Mac, Macworld recommends this software for keeping an eye on your Mac's camera.