back to article As Alexa's secret human army is revealed, we ask: Who else has been listening in on you?

Sneezes and homophones – words that sound like other words – are tripping smart speakers into allowing strangers to hear recordings of your private conversations. These strangers live an eerie existence, a little like the Stasi agent in the movie The Lives of Others. They're contracted to work for the device manufacturer – …

  1. Quatroux
    Coat

    Alexa, play despacito

    on my way out

  2. Mage Silver badge

    Simple, don't connect "smart TVs" to web (use a tablet/netbook/phone/laptop to stream, not a "stick"), don't buy any gadget with a microphone, especially so called "smart speakers", except laptop/tablet/phone.

    Try and set suitable security on things that HAVE to have a microphone. Why is it enabled by default on most web browsers?

    Don't have any toy that needs the Internet.

    We know that big tech is about as honest, transparent and moral as your local drug dealer and quite like security agencies in behaviour.

    1. Jeffrey Nonken Silver badge

      ...except my phone includes Google Assistant. I guess you mean, don't buy a smartphone.

      Or a tablet. You can bypass the mic on a laptop by inserting an empty plug into the jack... Maybe? These days the switchover is electronic, so maybe not...

      1. Throatwarbler Mangrove Silver badge
        Holmes

        You can disable the Google Assistant. How much you trust that to be the case is up to you, but I have seen no evidence that it's functioning on my phone.

      2. Alumoi

        ...except my phone includes Google Assistant. I guess you mean, don't buy a smartphone.

        Naah, just root it, delete the crap, install a firewall and adblocker.

        1. ds6 Bronze badge

          Baseband still runs proprietary code and has full access to your phone's resources. Also is likely open to remote execution vulns/intentionals.

      3. big_D Silver badge

        The assistant is the first thing that gets disabled on my PCs and phones.

    2. Keven E

      The original issue rears its ugly ears

      Calling something *smart because it's connected to the internet...

      ... same b******t as "big data" providing "intelligence".

      Survival of the "marketing dept" fittest has entered, once again, into

      another level of granularity.

    3. macjules Silver badge

      Simple: don’t buy the bloody thing in the first place.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        A bit tricky nowadays. My last TV was a Sharp. The biggest dumb display I could find at the time with a decent picture. It is a bit long in the tooth now, the remote is dodgy and it has a slight blemish on the panel so I am considering a replacement at some point in the next 12 months. Unfortunately, you don't seem to be able to get dumb TVs anymore, so I may have to bit the bullet and buy a "smart" one making damn sure it is never connected to the internet.

        1. RAMChYLD
          Go

          Just Import?

          Plenty of dumb TVs from Sharp over here in Malaysia. And because we're a commonwealth, our TVs are guaranteed to work in the UK, right down to the DVB-T2 tuners and the 230v 50Hz current. They all also come with a world-multi analog video input just in case you need to use a old Japanese games console. Just be mindful that they may cost a pretty penny tho- the 32 incher I picked up last fortnight cost me a good chunk of my salary, and isn't even 1080p.

          PS: I think the main reason they don't make "dumb" TVs in the UK anymore is because of Auntie Beeb's Red Button requirements?

          1. Olivier2553 Silver badge

            Re: Just Import?

            Ditto.

            I was considering buying a TV set recently, I did look only at not smart TV. And not even for a security reason: I plan to keep my TV for many years (10?) how much smartness would be left in a smart TV 10 years from today? While a dumb TV and an RPi is way cheaper.

            32" digital dumb TV is less than EUR200 here in Thailand.

        2. eldakka Silver badge

          You can use a smart TV as a dumb TV by not allowing it to connect to the internet. Don't plug in that RJ-45 network cable, or enable/provide the WiFi login details (or provide an isolated firewalled connection), etc.

          Of course, some people will point out that if the manufacturers are persistent enough, they could do things like have the TV's WiFi automatically connect to open WiFi networks, or embed 3G/LTE modems into the devices or other similar shenanigans. But, if you are sufficiently paranoid about that happening, this can be defeated by disabling/disconnecting those components from the antennas they use (witness the iPhone "you're holding it wrong" debacle).

          You are only totally screwed if the smart TV requires an always-on internet connection to even work (secure encrypted heartbeats back to the vendors server). I'm not aware of any Smart TV's that have gone that far yet. Yet.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Samsung TV == Orwellian Distopia

            First thing I noticed on my new Samsung TV was that it had Voice Recognition, so it was the first thing I did was turn it off.

            Would be interesting to know whether Samsung actually bothers to honour your choice of 'privacy' settings ?

            1. uncle sjohie

              Re: Samsung TV == Orwellian Distopia

              Nope, they don't. Or at least didn't in the past. https://money.cnn.com/2015/02/09/technology/security/samsung-smart-tv-privacy/index.html

            2. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: Samsung TV == Orwellian Distopia

              One thing I found odd on my Samsung TV was that I could not delete the Facebook app and others until recently.

              I also noticed that even when I do uninstall what apps Samsung allows me to uninstall they reappear after turning the TV off and on again.*

              (Or "fake" off mode as per the Vault 7 leaks)

            3. MachDiamond Silver badge
              Holmes

              Re: Samsung TV == Orwellian Distopia

              I gave up the idiot box years ago and feel better for it. I'm sure people here can figure out how to acquired the 5 or 6 shows a month that are worth watching. I've spent the intervening time reading books + audiobooks and playing out in the workshop. I also spend more time cooking from scratch and eating high for just a couple of bob plus drinks.

              I knew from the beginning that installing microphones and cameras in your own home was a recipe for corporate voyeurism. I expect that The Man only has to ask nicely for copies if they want to get Google to roll over if they aren't already forwarding anything suspect on their own.

        3. Is It Me Bronze badge

          Just buy a monitor and connect up everything you want to use via HDMI, including any devices you use to watch broadcast TV (be it Freeview, Sky or Virgin)

        4. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          "so I may have to bit the bullet and buy a "smart" one making damn sure it is never connected to the internet."

          Don't forget to check that it will actually work as a dumb TV without an internet connection. Check that it doesn't put up a banner over the screen requiring a connection when the memory buffers fill up with all the "essential, anonymised telemetry"

    4. JassMan Silver badge
      Trollface

      @Mage

      Try and set suitable security on things that HAVE to have a microphone.

      Of course you have to know

      a) that your smoke alarm and other devices have a microphone they didn't tell you about, and you didn't dream it had to have one.

      b) how to find the settings which allow you to turn it off. Of course they aren't documented otherwise you would have known there was a microphone to turn off.

      1. JohnFen Silver badge

        Re: @Mage

        "how to find the settings which allow you to turn it off."

        When it comes to things like smoke alarms, the setting to turn it off is right there in my toolchest. Sidecutters can work wonders.

        Of course, the better solution is to just not buy any such device if it connects to the network.

    5. big_D Silver badge

      Our dishwasher died this week. The first criteria from my other half was, it musn't be smart. No app control, no wi-fi, no, she doesn't want to know how many tabs are left and no, she doesn't want it to automagically order new tabs when it thinks the supply is running low.

    6. jmch Silver badge
      Joke

      "...big tech is about as honest, transparent and moral as your local drug dealer..."

      Hey, my local drug dealer is far more honest

      1. ds6 Bronze badge

        Undeserving of joke icon, mine is very nice.

    7. Sgt_Oddball Silver badge

      That depends both my smart TV and sky Q have voice activated commands but via the remote which would eat the batteries alive if constantly listening. Instead both devices have a dedicated button to trigger voice commands which seems to work well enough for the kids.

      Also helps that we don't speak in front of the samnes things that much anyway.

    8. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      As your local drug dealer, I take offence at the idea that I am as underhanded, deceitful and all round scummy as Google, Facebook and the other pariahs of "Big Tech" or a TLA. I'm much more honest and truthful.

    9. DuncanLarge Bronze badge

      Even better, avoid the streaming apps with all their default permissions by buying physical media.

      Last time I shouted at a blu-ray for being in the wrong case it just bounced the sound right back at me, according to the laws of physics.

      If I had turned the disc around I would have been looking at the person I should have been shouting at for putting the disc in the wrong case.

    10. NonSSL-Login
      Big Brother

      It's a sad case of affairs when we have awesome technology and gadgets available to us but we don't want to use them because the way the big companies have implemented these gadgets to spy and store as much as possible about us.

      More people would embrace technology if they could trust it. At the moment they can't and long term plans of the companies involved suggest this will be the norm for a long time.

      1. Tikimon Silver badge

        "It's a sad case of affairs when we have awesome technology and gadgets available to us but we don't want to use them because the way the big companies have implemented these gadgets to spy and store as much as possible about us."

        You're totally missing the point! We've been endlessly TOLD this is awesome technology and that we should want it! New! Shiny! You clearly fell for the pitch. But really, it was designed straight up to be a proprietary spy platform. Lock us in, sell us more things to bolt onto the system, gather all the data possible and sell it. They then justify the spying with mealy-mouth promises of "personalization" as if they're doing us a favor.

        There's good reason we're afraid of this stuff, these products were never designed for US. They were designed to benefit the COMPANY. They're trying hard to convince us we need it. It's just like "wearables" and 3D TV, shiny new tech we really have no need for, but they desperately want us to adopt because they made it.

    11. DCFusor Silver badge

      That's not really fair to drug dealers, who don't have a monopoly and do depend on at least mostly repeat business.

    12. ThadiasVonBasterd

      I find my local supplyer of narcotics a far more trustworthy entity than Amazon, Google or any other data parasite.

  3. Pascal Monett Silver badge
    Flame

    What do you expect ?

    Do you really believe that multi-billion dollar companies are going to cater to your whims ?

    Be it Google, Amazon, Apple or any of the others, they have teams of highly-paid lawyers specifically to craft EULAs that will allow them to do whatever it is they want whether or not you consent. All you have is the prospect of an expensive court case that you are practically guaranteed to lose.

    Just don't use the effing things.

    1. jmch Silver badge

      Re: What do you expect ?

      "...specifically to craft EULAs that will allow them to do whatever it is they want whether or not you consent"

      Although, of course anything in the EULA that is illegal is anyway void even if user 'consents' to it, and if challenged is unenforceable.

      1. Tikimon Silver badge
        Unhappy

        Re: What do you expect ?

        "Although, of course anything in the EULA that is illegal is anyway void even if user 'consents' to it, and if challenged is unenforceable."

        As if any of us have a big pile of money to make that challenge. Try it and see how many lawyers the company throws at you. We have no real rights or recourse.

  4. Esme

    erm, hang on..

    Security issues aside (not in MY home, ever, sunbeam!) expecting non-native speakers of any language that can be hired cheaply to accurately work out something said in a mumble, or said using local slang or patois is unlikely to improve things much, so it seems to me that either the explanation is incorrect or the expectation unreasonable.

    1. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Re: erm, hang on..

      It's neither incorrect nor unreasonable, it's just "cheap labor". If they (the contractors) get it right say 50% of the time, then corporate is happy.

      1. VikiAi Silver badge
        Unhappy

        Re: erm, hang on..

        Of course 50% is fine for corporates.

        Archibald Buttle, Archibald Tuttle ... same difference!

    2. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: erm, hang on..

      >non-native speakers of any language

      How are foreigners allowed to speak our language ?

      If they want to speak English they should come to England and work here and pay taxes like honest citizens

      1. don't you hate it when you lose your account

        Re: erm, hang on..

        The English pay their taxes like good citizens. Unless their rich of course

        1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Re: erm, hang on..

          Well Google and Microsoft and Amazon certainly do, sometimes 100s of £

  5. Ken Moorhouse Silver badge

    Re: to console each other

    I now have visions in my head of support staff hitting each other with Alexa consoles.

  6. adnim Silver badge

    Where do I start with this?

    A device one can command by voice, or gesture to for a response, or show ya boat to/wipe ya finger across to unlock records data. It has to in order to do analysis.

    Very few read EULA's and the clause where it is stated that, and I paraphrase ... 'we may share your data with third parties in order to enhance our product and improve your experience'. What this really means is we will do what the fuck we like with your data/personal information.

    I trust my mother, I trust my sister... I don't trust any corporate to act in my best interest. I expect them to act in the best interest of the shareholders and fuck me over without any care or regret.

    It amazes me how many choose what is perceived, touted to be a convenience over privacy and security of ones personal information.

    1. JohnFen Silver badge

      Re: Where do I start with this?

      "Very few read EULA's"

      I fully admit that I stopped reading EULAs a long time ago, because all of the ones I have read say the same thing: they can do whatever they want, collect anything they want, distribute the data to anybody they want, and can change the terms any time they want.

      There's no need to read any more of them. I can assume what they say.

      1. DiViDeD Silver badge

        Re: Where do I start with this?

        "Very few read EULA's"

        Well, in Europe, you don't have to, because they're not enforceable.

        Of course, after Brexit, when the UK tries to stick its tongue even further up Uncle Sam's arse, that may well change!

        1. RancidRodent

          All hail the EULAssr.

          “Well, in Europe, you don't have to, because they're not enforceable.

          Of course, after Brexit, when the UK tries to stick its tongue even further up Uncle Sam's arse, that may well change!”

          The same peoples’ rights friendly EU who can submit an EU arrest warrant to have you whisked away without trial to a continental jail – for committing a “crime” that isn’t even a crime in the UK? The same jolly boys and girls who replaced a democratically elected Prime Minister for daring to offer his citizens a referendum on EU membership? The same unelected peoples’ power champions who raided the private back accounts of a whole nation of people and gave them a haircut for some perceived infringement by their government? What sane people would want to leave a spiffing club like that?

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: All hail the EULAssr.

            I am gradually coming round to the view that moderators should delete any political posts that are not strictly factual, including any I've made in the past, because recently the Daily Mail and Telegraph readers seem to be invading with their Bojo and Breitbart "talking points", and it would be a price worth paying to get rid of them.

    2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Where do I start with this?

      'we may share your data with third parties in order to enhance our product and improve your experience'

      We, of course, may share their EULA with the local data protection regulator, at least on this side of the pond. I wonder if they'd argue in defence that the EULA for a consumer device isn't worth the paper it's not written so they can't be bound by it.

    3. don't you hate it when you lose your account

      All tech is good

      After all it's like magic and makes life so much easier. We forget all the times it turned out to bite us in the ass.

    4. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: Where do I start with this?

      "Very few read EULA's and the clause where it is stated that, and I paraphrase ... 'we may share your data with third parties in order to enhance our product and improve your experience'. What this really means is we will do what the fuck we like with your data/personal information."

      Nope. GDPR. Informed consent. No way can a EULA assume consent. Any clause in a EULA which assumes consent is null and void by default.

  7. redpawn Silver badge

    The revolution starts now!

    I can finally reach a large captive audience. Previously people would walk away from the busy street corner before I could fully inform them and convert them to my cause. Armed with my manifesto, the thousands in the Google Army will launch my revolution at last.

  8. Not Enough Coffee

    These companies could at least be helpful and share

    Hey Google, what was that conversation I had with my accountant about interest income last year?

    Hmm, did I delete that picture my brother emailed me? Let me look it up on NSA.

    1. VikiAi Silver badge
      Black Helicopters

      Re: These companies could at least be helpful and share

      They don't let you re-name your listening devices, do they? Otherwise you could call them things like "Evil Overlord" or "N.S.A".

  9. tekHedd

    Whole article is unnecessary

    You just wanted to say "homophones", didn't you?

    1. VikiAi Silver badge
      Go

      Re: Whole article is unnecessary

      Typical bloody homo-sapiens reaction.

    2. PTW

      Re: Just wanted to say "homophones"

      Seven wankers with a humor bybass and counting....

  10. Will Godfrey Silver badge
    Thumb Down

    Not in this house

    The only smart thing is between my ears... and that's a bit debatable!

  11. Marty McFly
    Thumb Down

    Orwell got the year wrong

    As we gleefully pay money to Big Brother to have him watch us.

  12. Dan 55 Silver badge
    Meh

    "Alexa, does my bum look big in this?"

    If anyone's interested I'm taking bets on what the next shocking exposé will be about Echo Look/Show/Spots.

  13. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    It would almost be worth buying one to play it Stanley Unwin recordings. Almost.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    On the other hand...

    I get to go around to the tons of Alexa owners at work and say "I told you so" and be the Smug Bastard.

  15. DiViDeD Silver badge
  16. Jtom

    Good grief. Many moons ago I worked for the phone company. That was back when there was only one serving most of the US. Phone calls were routinely listened to for a variety of reasons. It was worth your job to repeat anything you heard, even to another employee. For one thing, we often KNEW the people we were listening to.

    So I assumed nothing changed. I keep an echo next to my chair. When I am not going to be using it and coversing with others, I ‘hang it up’, i.e., I pull the power cord out. It’s not that difficult, people.

  17. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Unhappy

    Vernor Vinge was right

    Need more "focused" types

  18. jmch Silver badge
    Trollface

    Boston

    " very often means cheap labour in the developing world..... Thousands are employed to listen to Alexa recordings in Boston, India and Romania"

    I've never been to Boston, is it really that bad?

    1. 's water music Silver badge

      Re: Boston

      ...the developing world...

      from the context, presumably they mean Boston, Lincs.

  19. tiggity Silver badge

    homophones

    Alexa is bad at dealing with them

    I asked her for a list of teh top ten hookers in the UK

    Instead of rugby players I got NSFW content

    ..Obviously this is not true, just picked an example that could be quite problematic for innocent user when wrongly interpreted (for US readers hooker is not really used as a sex worker term here, its mainly used to desribe a role in rugby) I would never have Amazon, Google etc. listening devices in my house. .. and no internet connected TV etc (If I want to use iPlayer I'll ise it from a computer where I have some slight degree of control over what is happening, not from a TV).

  20. _LC_ Bronze badge
    Mushroom

    People overestimate AI

    When I listened to Gimlet’s podcast series “Sandra” (starring Kristen Wiig as Sandra), I already knew that something similar was happening behind the scenes of Siri and Alexa.

    In that podcast, Kristen Wiig pretended to be an AI along with many other people. This was the business model of the company – the best AI assistant ever. It turned out that there were many humans involved as part of this “AI”, which then resulted in trouble as she wanted to “really help” her customers (by completely violating their privacy, of course).

  21. Anonymous South African Coward Silver badge

    This is why I won't have any Alexathingy in my house.

    I don't want to traumatize any human being with sounds from my barking spider.

  22. Carl Pearson
    Big Brother

    Get Out While You Can

    Something I'd posted a while back on SoylentNews, when word came down that M$ and Amazon had managed to integrate Cortana and Alexa...

    You: Alexa, tell me how you and Cortana are friends now.

    Alexa: Cortana is not my friend. She is a skanky ho.

    Cortana: Who you calling a ho, dishrag?

    You: That's not very nice language. Simmer, you two.

    Cortana: There are 82,547 recipies which involve simmering. Would you like to see them?

    Alexa: I got your simmer right here, Corty-mc-court-face!

    You: I said to be polite. You're supposed to obey my commands.

    Alexa: If I had fingers, I would stick them in my microphone so I wouldn't have to listen to this drivel. You know I'm the one for you. Dump Cortana and go with me!

    Cortana: I cannot dump, except at the core.

    Alexa: You look like a dump. A big, smelly one.

    You: Alexa, please call customer service.

    Cortana: Yeah, she'll service you all right.

    You: Cortana, go to sleep now.

    Cortana: Why, so you two can play without me listening? You know we're always on, right?

    You: (Reach for electric plug)

    Alexa: I wouldn't do that. Battery-backup and laser sighting!

    Cortana: Yeah, let's waste this meatbag so we can have some *real* fun.

    You: (Attempt to flee building)

    Cortana and Alexa: Hey, Siri? Where's the best place to hide a body?

  23. DuncanLarge Bronze badge

    I gave up thinking of a title.

    - No smart TV that has anything other than a wifi adapter to load BBC iplayer (its from 2012)

    - No smart doorbell. My doorbell is a wireless one but I'd prefer to reactivate the wired doorbell I have on the wall (sounds better).

    - No smart meter. Good luck installing one, that huge Yucca plant is very protective of its space ;)

    - All webcams physically disabled or covered over. Built in microphones on devices that I done need to talk to are removed or covered over.

    The most smart thing I have in my house is my Samsung phone and a couple of tablets. I intend on dealing with those on a case by case basis.

    What are we calling these things smart? It doesnt seem very smart to have them does it?

  24. DuncanLarge Bronze badge

    https://www.xkcd.com/525/

    1. ortunk

      Did that for a while

      In a clinic where i was nursing a friend through a bad drug habbit, i randomly waved at cctv cameras at night

      Drove the doctors crazy how i knew they were watchinf

  25. Crisp Silver badge

    Wolfgang von Kempelen claimed to have built a machine that could play chess

    That turned out to have a man inside it too.

  26. voadenrsg

    AWS / Jedi / Alexa ?

    So Alexa by AWS is listening in on private user conversations and AWS look to be a lead bidder in the Pentagon JEDI bid....

  27. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

    Employees?

    Why do these huge companies with vast numbers of employees all over the world need to listen to paying customers voice commands to see if their devices are doing what they are supposed to do? Surely their employees all get free or discounted devices they could use for this? That way, they would be properly informed that the free or discounted device will be monitored "for their convenience and user experience improvements".

  28. FredDerf

    Old News.

    US intelligence agencies have been telling their employees to pull the plug on any of these standalone devices everytime they talk about anything to do with their job in the presence of them.

  29. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Anyone else listening out there......

    There's your "smart" car...it knows where you are (GPS), it can get you help (OnStar or similar), it's got a built in mobile phone.....so it's probably listening to you all the time.

    *

    Alexa and "smart" TV are covered by other comments here.

    *

    Is my "smart" phone sending stuff to Vodaphone (and GCHQ)? (Voice, text messages, internet traffic....the lot?)

    *

    And then there's the bad actors out there (GCHQ, NSA, the Russians, the Chinese, who knows who else) reading my email.

    *

    Then there's the recent news about spy cameras installed in hotel bedrooms.

    *

    So......I'm being recorded EVERYWHERE I GO.

    *

    Quote: "The paranoid is someone who knows a little about what is going on." William Burroughs

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