We asked two of the most popular smart home assistants — Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant — how to find the user data their devices collected about us. The Google Home device promptly directed us to the Google Home app and google.com/myactivity. But after multiple attempts,was unable to answer the question, “How do I access my data?”
It didn’t seem like too much to ask of the voice-activated devices that are taking up residence in millions of American homes, but Alexa appeared to be caught by surprise.
Amazon and Google’s artificial intelligentare being built into smart speakers, phones, security systems, televisions and even cars. Over the past 18 months, Amazon and Google captured more than 50 percent of the smart home market share. At the CES 2019 consumer electronics show, Google announced users could soon find Google Assistant on nearly one billion devices worldwide, including Android phones. Meanwhile, Amazon has sold about 100 million devices with access to Alexa.
The appeal of these devices is clear: we can speak our commands and questions into the air and get a near-instant response. After calling out “OK, Google” or “Alexa ” — the command that “wakes” and activates the device — the user’s request is then heard, processed and, ideally, quickly answered. Say, “Alexa, what’s in the news?” and the day’s headlines come right up.
Where a user’s voice data goes after that moment is less clear. If you ask these very devices where you can find your data, Google Assistant tells you, “Google stores data about our conversations on its servers. You can see your activity in the Google Home app or at: google.com/myactivity.” There, we could see a list of every question and command we’d ever given Google Home, and had the option to delete them.
Amazon’s Alexa software had a bit more trouble with the question. We asked it a variety of different ways, including “How can I see my data?”( which is the command Google responded to), as well as “How can I see what data you have collected on my voice commands?” and “Where do I see what data is stored by Amazon?” To each question, Alexa responded that she was “not sure,” or “hmm, I don’t know that one.”
So we emailed an Amazon spokesperson to learn the answer. Here’s what they told us.
“We collect and use voice data in order to deliver and improve our services,” said the Amazon spokesperson. “This includes helping train Alexa to better understand natural language when you speak to her and provide you with the right response to your requests.”
To learn about voice data collection, we were directed by the spokesperson to a notice on Amazon.com called “Alexa, Echo Devices and Your Privacy,” which explains in more detail how voice data is collected by smart home devices, how those files are stored in the cloud, and how to review and delete them.
We also discovered (by Googling it) a privacy notice on Amazon.com that states, “Information about our customers is an important part of our business, and we are not in the business of selling it to others.” The company specifies that some information is shared with various Amazon subsidiaries, third-party service providers and affiliated businesses.
In actuality, the process for viewing and deleting your Amazon data is similar to Google’s. If you go to the Alexa app, then to “Settings,” then to “History,” users can see individual voice recordings their device captured and then can delete them if they choose. Amazon says you can also do this at amazon.com/alexaprivacy.
If users don’t delete the files, as Google made clear, the data remains stored on the tech giant’s servers. In Google’s online Safety Center, the company writes, “We do not sell your personal information to anyone.” It says it uses the data to “serve you relevant ads in Google products, on partner websites and in mobile apps.”
Google and Amazon’s attempts to provide transparency and give users more control over their data come in the wake of some massive data privacy scandals, such as Facebook allowing Cambridge Analytica to get its hands on millions of users’ data without their consent. A strict new privacy protection law went into effect in Europe last spring, but the U.S. has no such federal standard.
In the end, with a little effort, we did get answers to our question about how to find our data. But big questions remain about how our personal information may be used by tech giants in the years ahead — even as we welcome more and more of their devices into our homes.