Unplug Your Smart Speakers While You're Working From Home

Amazon Alexa Plus
Amazon Alexa Plus
Photo: Grant Hindsley/AFP (Getty Images)

Whether you just started working from home or have been for a few weeks now, it’s a good idea to turn off your smart speakers sooner rather than later; your Alexa or Google Home could be listening in on all those confidential work calls. Smart home devices not only listen to us when we don’t want them too, but we have no idea when an Amazon or Google employee is also listening to those conversations for the sake of ‘improving voice-recognition features.’

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This can be a huge issue for people whose jobs require them to handle confidential, personal information: special education teachers holding Individual Education Program (IEP) meetings; doctors discussing treatment plans with their patients; lawyers speaking with their clients about an on-going case. Last week Bloomberg reported at least one law firm advised attorneys to power down the speakers. “Perhaps we’re being slightly paranoid but we need to have a lot of trust in these organizations and these devices,” Joe Hancock, a partner at Mishcon de Reya, told Bloomberg. “We’d rather not take those risks.”

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You don’t even need to have a sensitive phone call to accidentally trigger your smart speaker. TV shows are great at doing that, too. Remember the South Park episode “White People Renovating Houses?” That was only the beginning. Recent research from Northeastern University and Imperial College London suggests that users can inadvertently activate their smart speakers between 1.5 and 19 times a day.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a way for us to know if or what our smart speakers are recording unless we manually change our privacy settings or unplug our devices altogether. According to a January 2020 report from NPR and Edison, 60 million people (or 24 percent of adults 18 and over) in the US own at least one smart speaker device at the end of 2019. However, with a total number of 157 million smart speakers out in the wild, that’s 2.6 smart speaker devices per household. The report also concluded that 69 percent of smart speaker owners use their device daily. That’s a lot of conversations potentially being listened to without your knowledge.

If you are concerned about keeping your phone calls private while working from home, unplug your smart speakers or hit the mute button on the speaker itself. You may lose the convenience of turning on lights in your house with your voice or asking Alexa to play a specific song (or the unbridled joy of hearing Alexa say “Replicators are offline” when you ask for tea, Earl Grey, hot), but you’ll gain the peace of mind knowing that Amazon isn’t listening to you strategize with your client on how to get a reduced conviction on drug charges.

But if you think that unplugging and re-plugging your smart speakers everyday is too much of a hassle, there still is a way to turn off and prevent any virtual assistant from listening to you and recording what you say. Our step-by-step field guide covers all the major digital assistants, and even how to delete things you’ve already said.

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Staff Reporter, Reviews at Gizmodo. Formerly PC Gamer, Maximum PC.

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DISCUSSION

F-D-BryantIII
F. D. Bryant III

It would be nice if you could say “Alexa, don’t listen for X minutes (or hours)” and have it go mute as if you had hit the mute button (you would be able to turn it off if you hit the mute button).  Always wonder why they don’t have that.