Worries Mount Over Virtual Home Assistants Recording Private Conversations

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Millions of homes now have virtual assistants that are designed to respond to your verbal commands.

But as CBS2’s Hazel Sanchez reported, there is concern that the devices can cross the line between listening and eavesdropping – storing conversations that you want to keep private.

The virtual home assistants, such as Amazon Echo and Google Home, are becoming a pseudo part of the family. They help with requests to prepare users for their day, starting with trigger words such as, “OK Google” or “Alexa.”

“I think they’re cool gadgets to have,” a man said, “because you can ask the computer to do anything for you.”

But not everyone is a big fan of the devices.

“It’s always listening,” a woman said. “Like if I’m having a conversations and I’m not even talking to it, it’s listening — waiting for me to speak to it. I don’t like that.”

Every time the device hears the trigger word or something that sounds like it, it begins recording what it hears — and stores that in the systems cloud.

If you look at your history in the system app, you might find out it was recording something you didn’t expect it to.

In one user’s Amazon Echo account, the request history showed that a brief conversation was recorded, when the device incorrectly detected what it thought was a trigger word.

Sascha Segan, lead analyst at PCMagazine.com, said there are a couple of ways to fix that.

“You can’t change the trigger word for a Google Home. It’s always ‘OK Google’ right now,” Segan said. “Alexa — in the Alexa devices like this Echo Dot here — in the app, under ‘settings,’ there’s an option to set it to three different trigger words.”

The words are Alexa, Amazon or Echo. But the simplest way to stop the Amazon Echo or Google Home from recording you is to press the button to disable the microphone.

Experts said the devices only record for about 30 seconds after hearing the trigger word.

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