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Devices Always Listen, Experts Recommend Privacy Questions

They’re the smart assistants that always have an answer for you. Devices like Amazon Echo and Google Home are being used more often. But cyber experts say you should be thinking about how much information you give the devices and how the data is kept and protected.

All of these devices have one thing in common. You first have to teach them what they need to know to work better for you. For example, if you want it to tell you how long it will take you to get to work; you have to tell it where you live or It’ll calculate your address using your IP address.

Ray Vazquez, director of consulting at Enterprise Risk Management says these devices are very practical. They can answer any question we come up with, control devices in our homes and even shop for us.

“But if you don’t secure it, maybe when you have guests come to your house they might order things for you on your behalf,” said Vazquez.

Or maybe your kids decide to go shopping, like a Texas girl did when she asked Alexa for a dollhouse and it showed up at her door step.

Cyber security experts say, while unwanted purchases are an inconvenience, what we really should be careful with is all the information we share with these devices because it’s all stored in each company’s cloud.

“If it’s communicated, it’s connected and if it’s connected it can be hacked,” said Vazquez.

In its privacy policy, Google says it “…collects data that's meant to make our services faster, smarter, more relevant, and more useful to you.”

Amazon says “Information about our customers is an important part of our business, and we are not in the business of selling it to others.”

While both companies are working to keep your information private, experts say anything stored online is a potential target.

“We’ve recently learned through some disclosures on WikiLeaks how some televisions have been hacked or are hackable and can listen to us even when we believe they’re off,” explained Vazquez.

That’s why he says, it’s important to take steps to safeguard the information you share with these devices, like setting up passwords that limit who can check your bank balance or make purchases.

Also, be mindful that the devices are set up to record about 60 seconds of your conversation each time they hear wakewords or hotwords like “Alexa” or “OK Google.”

Maria Rogers, cyber security consultant at Enterprise Risk Management says one of the things that you can do is mute Alexa.

“It's always listening for that key wake-up word which is Alexa, Echo or Amazon so all you have to do to mute Alexa is you have to press the microphone on the device," she said. "When it’s lit up in red, she’s no longer listening.”

When the devices are recording, all the information is stored in the apps that control them.

Google says “We do not share personal information with companies, organizations and individuals outside of Google.” But there are exceptions including if it's with your consent or for legal reasons.

Just last year, prosecutors in Arkansas asked for Alexa recordings in a murder case.

Amazon denied the request until the suspect agreed to hand them over.

If you don’t want to keep a record of everything you’ve asked Alexa or Google, you can delete voice recordings.

Rogers recommends deleting those on a regular basis. 

Both Google and Amazon tell you exactly how they store and what happens to the information you provide these devices.

Click here to see Google's privacy policy.

Click here to see Amazon's privacy policy.

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