Can Digital Assistants Record Sensitive Information?

Many hardware and software developers have started to integrate digital assistants into their products, such as Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant and Apple’s Siri. These assistants offer a number of services and benefits, and can even be activated remotely using voice commands. However, because these platforms rely on connecting to a remote server, they run the risk of sending your recorded conversations or even personal information to others without your knowledge.

What Is A Digital Assistant?

Sometimes referred to as a virtual digital assistance, a digital assistant is a computer program designed to assist a user by answering questions and performing basic tasks.

How Digital Assistants Work

Every digital assistant uses the same underlying technology to answer questions and fulfill requests. Here’s an overview of how assistants record audio, send data to remote servers and analyze requests in order to respond:

  • Devices that activate with voice commands use a series of microphones to constantly take short recordings and listen for a word or short phrase that indicates someone’s making a request. If the device doesn’t detect the phrase, these short recordings are deleted without being sent to a remote server.
  • Some digital assistants also start recording a request after a button press or other prompt on the device.
  • Once the device detects that a request is finished, a recording is sent to one of the manufacturer’s servers. Advanced software programs then analyze it and send a response the device.
  • Most manufacturers claim that all recordings and other personal data is encrypted and inaccessible to outsiders. However, many manufacturers also have internal teams analyze recordings in order to upgrade their digital assistants.

Protecting Your Information

No technology is perfect, and it’s possible for smart devices to take unintended recordings for a number of reasons, such as a misinterpreted phrase, background noise, a damaged microphone or tampering. And, because the process of sending recordings to servers happens in seconds, you may not have a chance to prevent your information from being sent elsewhere.

digital assistants

Here are some tips you can use to control when your devices take recordings and protect your data:

  • Check your devices to see if there’s an option to configure the digital assistant’s settings. Depending on your device, you may be able to disable continuous recordings, require a physical button press or turn the digital assistant off altogether.
  • Read through and delete your conversation history. Some manufacturers let users view transcripts of recordings using a digital assistant’s mobile app. This option lets you see if any sensitive information was recorded and erase anything you don’t want outsiders to see.
  • Check the manufacturer’s policy to see if you can opt out of the process that allows their employees to analyze recordings remotely in order to improve digital assistants.
  • Go into the settings on your smartphone and other mobile devices to see what apps can access your microphone. It’s possible for some services to access microphones without consent, and they may have made recordings without your knowledge.
  • Regularly change the passwords of any accounts associated with digital assistants to protect both your settings and transcripts of recordings.
  • Think about the best area to place smart speakers and other devices with digital assistants. For example, you may not want to place these devices in an area where you frequently speak about work-related activities or other sensitive information.
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