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Alexa, Are You Spying On Me? How To Prevent Your Smart Devices From Listening To You

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- From cellphones to smart speakers, you may not realize what information is being gathered.

"It's scary that they're listening to you, and you don't know when," said Dena Rakarich of Monaca

She was brave enough to allow us to listen as she discovered for the first time what her Amazon Alexa device has been recording in her home.

"God, it records everything!" said Rakarich.

You might guess it records when you give it a command, and Rakarich's Alexa did do that. But among the two years-worth of recordings, are a variety of other things: TV commercials or news reports that merely mention Alexa.

Then, there are all the recordings triggered without saying "Alexa" at all.

She recognized her brother's voice not saying anything close to Alexa. Another recording captured someone snoring. Yet another recording captured a short snippet of a conversation she had with a neighbor that had nothing to do with a command for Alexa.

"This is starting to freak me out, some of things she's catching," Rakarich said.

A tech writer at The Washington Post found his Alexa was triggered by the TV show "Downton Abbey."

As for Rakarich, she never realized it was recording and never imagined someone might listen to it.

Lorrie Cranor, who is director of Carnegie Mellon University's CyLab Usable Privacy and Security Laboratory, says Rakarich is not alone.

"A lot people feel invaded," said Cranor. "They say I understand that this device, this thermostat or whatever is listening to me, but it's a machine. I don't care, but if they know that a person is listening, that takes it to a different level."

She says smart speaker makers explain why they have people listen: "One of the reasons that they record it is to improve their systems. And part of how they do it is they have a human listen and basically grade the computer."

And in rare cases, smart speaker recordings have actually wound up in court.

"There have been murder cases and other types of court cases, where those recordings have been subpoenaed," said Cranor. "So they could come back to haunt you or to save you, depending on which side you're on!"

Certainly, technology makes our lives easier, but does it also come at a privacy price?

Has this ever happened to you? You're talking to someone about buying something, maybe you need a new pair of shoes. And then all of a sudden, you start getting ads on your phone for new shoes. You're pretty certain that you never searched for shoes, so what's going on?

"I think people often just jump to the conclusion that they're phone was listening to them," said Cranor. "I think for the most part, that's probably not what happened."

During a Congressional hearing last year, Facebook's CEO was asked if Facebook was listening in, and the answer was a quick: "No."

And a company in London even did an experiment, playing pet food commercials to one smartphone and leaving another phone in silence.

They found no noticeable difference in the ads each phone got afterwards.

Cranor says if you're getting shoe ads, you likely searched for shoes and forgot.

WATCH: Is Your Alexa Spying On You?

Or she says there's another possibility: GPS tracking could have played a role.

"You actually went into a physical shoe store, and it was tracking your location. And so it said 'Ah-ha! Went into a shoe store, probably wants shoes,'" said Cranor.

Or she says there's another equally "Big Brother-worthy" possibility: "It is also possible that you were hanging out with people discussing shoes, and they started doing searches for shoes."

Then, it assumed you might be interested in shoes, as well, because you were merely with some prospective shoe shoppers.

In fact, she says it's possible for advertisers to set up what's called a "geo fence" to, for example, immediately send ads for late night pizza to people leaving movie theaters.

She says your cellphone company has access to your location, but websites and apps can, too.

"If it's an app that you leave running, they may have continuous access to your location," said Cranor. "But it gets worse. If there's an advertisement on the website or in the app, that advertising company may also have access to your location."

As for your smart speaker recording you, there are a number of changes and options companies have made.

You can listen to the recordings, stop humans from listening to them or delete them by logging into the privacy settings for your device.

Rakarich says that's something she would like to do.

"Even though there's nothing bad you're saying, but it's still like an invasion of privacy," said Cranor. "They're listening to what you're saying, regardless."

Apple has announced it will no longer listen to Siri recordings unless you allow it.

CNET explained your options in an article earlier this month.

To Keep Apple From Listening:

"The company can only receive your audio data if you choose to opt-in. If you opt-in and change your mind, go to your iPhone's Settings > Privacy > Analytics and Improvements > turn off Improve Siri & Dictation."

To Delete Apple Recordings:

"Apple: A new feature that comes with the iOS 13.2 update lets you delete all of your recordings. Open your Settings > Siri & Search > Siri & Dictation History > and select Delete Siri & Dictation History."

When it comes to Google Home, CNET reports that Google has suspended humans listening to recordings. However, it offered this advice that recent article:

To Keep Google From Listening:

"If you're still cautious, go to > Web & App Activity. Next, uncheck the box that says Include voice and audio recordings."

To Delete Google Recordings:

"Google: To delete your voice command history, go to > Data and Personalization > Web & App Activity > Manage Activity > Tap the three stacked dots menu at the top of the screen > Select Delete activity by and choose from the options -- all time, last hour, last day, etc. Tap Delete to confirm."

CNET goes on to say: "You can also tell Google to delete your voice command history. Just say 'Hey Google, delete everything I just said.'"

Finally, Amazon Alexa now offers the ability to prevent humans from listening to your Alexa recordings, simply by opting out.

To Keep Amazon From Listening:

Go to the Amazon Privacy Hub and turn off the toggle switch that says "Use Voice Recordings to Improve Amazon Services and Develop New Features."

To Delete Amazon Recordings:

Like the before, you can also listen to and delete your recordings, but there are now more options in how to delete.

You can set it up so that it will automatically delete your recordings older than three or 18 months.

You can also now use a voice a command to enable Alexa to delete recordings, if you've enabled the command ahead of time.

But there's still no way to keep it from recording in the first place.

For even more information about smart speaker settings and recordings, check out this article from CNET:

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