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Siri, Google, Alexa: Born to snoop, can be stopped

Jefferson Graham

USA TODAY

Hey, Google: enough is enough already.

Google was caught having contractors listening in to our conversations from its personal assistant, which sounds bad until you realize Google wasn’t alone in this. Apple and Facebook were doing the same thing. And last week, Microsoft got stung by Vice’s Motherboard, and now admits it, too, listens.

The companies, which also include Amazon, have said they do this on a limited basis to learn and make their assistants better. Every time we say “Hey, Google,” our query is being recorded and stored. Ditto for Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Facebook Messenger and Microsoft’s Cortana.

Consumers are “trading privacy for convenience,” said Bret Kinsella, the editor of the Voicebot.ai blog, which tracks voice computing. “The likelihood of something they’re saying at home being picked up is low.”

But it happens. And it’s our job, if we’re uncomfortable with the practice, to delete the recordings and change our settings to stop the snooping. Because by default, devices are set to monitor, leaving it to us to have to hunt, peck and stop them in their tracks.

To get Amazon to stop having Alexa have humans listen to you, open the Alexa smartphone app, where Amazon gives you the option to turn it off. (Go to Settings, Alexa Privacy and select “Manage How your data Improves Alexa.”) Within the app settings (under Review Voice History) you can also enable “deletion by voice,” to say, “Alexa, delete what I just said,” or “Alexa, delete everything I said today” and have the recordings erased. Make sure your date range under “Review Voice History” is clicked to “all history,” and you’ll see an option to “delete all recordings.”

You can disable the Google Assistant from listening to you in the same settings section that stops Google from monitoring your every move for Google Maps, which tracks you even if the app isn’t opened. It reminds you that turning off the setting won’t delete any of the past data Google recorded. To get rid of those, you’ll need to go to http:// myactivity.google.com.

Don’t forget once there to click Web and App Activity and “Choose to Delete Automatically,” to stop Google from continuing the recordings.

Apple has said it would suspend monitoring operations and would grace us with a “future software update,” which will let users choose whether to participate in the human monitoring program.

Audio messages between two private parties via the Facebook Messenger app were transcribed by contractors working for the social network, per a Bloomberg report. Facebook now says it has paused the transcribing.

The Messenger app doesn’t have a settings section, so you’ll have to stop the recordings in the settings section of your phone. Turn off microphone access. In other words, don’t make calls with Facebook Messenger.

In Apple iOS, go to Settings, scroll down to the Facebook app and un-click microphone. On Android phones, open settings, click “Apps & notifications,” find the Facebook Messenger app, look for Permissions, click Microphone, and chose Deny.

The Amazon Echo, powered by digital assistant Alexa, holds recordings unless users order the device to delete them. ELAINE THOMPSON/AP FILE

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