Most of us are comfortable using digital assistants to ask about the weather, or the traffic on the way to work, or just how many years it’s been since our favourite sports team actually won anything—but what’s happening to all of our voice commands and queries? And just how many human beings are listening in to them? Here’s how to see what’s on file, and how to delete it.
Google Assistant is perhaps the most ubiquitous of the digital assistants we’re covering here, on all sorts of phones and computers and other devices, and it also has the most comprehensive set of tools for managing your queries.
Log into your Google account on the web, click Data & personalisation, then go to Manage your activity controls. On the next page, untick Include voice and audio recordings if you don’t want Google to ever hang on to the stuff you say to the Google Assistant on whatever device.
To press on, click Manage activity under Web & App Activity. Up at the top is a relatively new option that tells Google to clean out your web and app activity automatically on a regular basis—that applies across all apps and devices, so everything from your browsing history to your voice commands.
Click Choose to delete automatically, then pick either three months or 18 months for the auto-cleanup delay. That three-month option is a good way of keeping Google on a short leash while still allowing some level of personalisation and ad targeting.
To focus on your voice commands specifically, click Filter by date & product, then choose Voice and Audio, and click Apply. All the existing audio clips are listed chronologically, and you can even click through on the entries to listen to the actual clips if you want. Click the trash can icon next to any entry to delete it from Google’s servers.
There’s no option for choosing whether or not your Google Assistant snippets get listened to by humans to improve accuracy, although Google is now asking users if they want to opt into this program when the Assistant is first set up. For the time being at least, it doesn’t look like there’s a way to toggle this on or off manually after the setup process.
Amazon Alexa currently doesn’t allow searches and queries on phones (although there is an official Alexa app), so most of your voice interactions with Alexa are going to be through some kind of smart speaker. Voice recordings can be easily managed and deleted, if necessary.
To find your recording history, sign in to your account on Amazon, then click Accounts & Lists and Your Content and Devices. Open up Privacy Settings, then Review Voice History, and you can see all your recordings—click on any entry to listen back to it, or to delete it from Amazon’s servers. The option to delete everything you’ve ever said is up at the top of the list.
Turn on the Enable deletion by voice option at the top, and you can delete recordings with a voice command to your smart speakers—”Alexa, delete everything I said today” for example. Meanwhile, to stop any of your voice recordings being reviewed by humans, choose Manage Your Alexa Data then uncheck the Use Voice Recordings to Improve Amazon Services and to Develop New Features option.
Siri is on most of the hardware made by Apple these days, but Apple is still catching up with Google and Alexa in terms of giving you access to past recordings—that’s partly because it does as much processing as possible on your devices, with only a minimum of data sent back to Apple’s servers.
Having temporarily shut down the human review process for select Siri recordings, it’s now back up and running, though with Apple staff taking the place of independent contractors. To manage how your recordings are used, open Settings on iOS or iPadOS, then go to Privacy, then Analytics & Improvements, and toggle the Improve Siri & Dictation switch to off. You’ll find a similar option in the Security & Privacy section of System Preferences on macOS.
To delete recordings from iOS and iPadOS, open Settings then choose Siri & Search, Siri & Dictation History, and then Delete Siri & Dictation History. On macOS, you can find the same option on the Siri screen of System Preferences.
Cortana hasn’t quite become the genuine digital assistant competitor we thought it might, but it’s still doing a job on Windows, and it will collect your voice input clips (and occasionally get human beings to review them) unless you tell it not to.
If you head to your Microsoft account on the web, then click Activity history under Privacy, you can see your voice recordings (and listen back to them, if you want) by clicking Voice. To remove individual entries in the list, just click one of the Clear buttons; to wipe them all from Microsoft’s servers, click Clear activity.
For the time being at least, Microsoft isn’t letting you opt-out of the possibility of your voice clips finding their way to a human reviewer. If you use Cortana, you agree to it happening, though as with Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri, we’re only talking about a very small percentage of clips from a very low number of users.