Google voice search makes finding what you need even easier.
Just say “OK Google,” tell your phone or tablet what you want to find, and you’ll get results. Or use the microphone icon in your browser.
There’s even an official Chrome extension that combines voice search with Google Docs dictation, so you can type a document without touching a keyboard.
It’s really cool technology, but like most convenient tech, there are some tradeoffs.
In this case, the biggest trade-off is privacy. Voice search comes with some “features” that you might not be aware of, and privacy enthusiasts find those features a bit worrying. (Fortunately, you can mitigate them with a few clicks if you know where to look; we’ll get to that in a moment.)
First, let’s talk about how Google voice search is changing human-computer interaction.
Google Voice Search: The future of search
For years, Google has been making it easier to find the information you want on the internet. Extremely refined algorithms, sophisticated tracking and scoring, and integration with a variety of other services all remove barriers to getting great search results.
Voice search is an extension of that. If you can’t – or just don’t want to – type your query, all you need to do is speak it and Google will take a look. You can use it to search other search engines (like DuckDuckGo, which is much more privacy-focused), Wikipedia, YouTube, Wolfram Alpha, and a wide variety of other sites.
Google Assistant, a more powerful companion to simple voice search, will help you find photos, send text messages, keep your shopping list, and even order products.
It’s clear that Google is betting heavily on voice technology, and that it’s working. A 2018 survey by Stone Temple found that 16% of people prefer to use voice search over any other method.
And 60% used voice search at least some of the time. Users also took advantage of voice tech for sending texts, making calls, getting directions, and setting reminders.
Google stores every voice command that you’ve ever given your device
Why do so many prefer voice-enabled apps? Mostly because it saves time. Over 60% said that they use voice because it’s fast. But the fact that it’s accurate, doesn’t require typing, and results in an audio answer were mentioned, too.
The past few years have seen increasing usage of voice search and other voice-enabled technologies, and it’s unlikely to slow down any time soon. Google is leading the way in making it easier for users to interact with their devices using their voice.
But this convenience has a cost that many people aren’t aware of: privacy.
Why privacy advocates are wary of Google Voice Search
Most people using Google’s voice products without much thought. They say “OK Google,” or hold down the home button on their device, and start talking. When they’re done with the search, they forget about it.
But Google doesn’t.
It stores every voice command that you’ve ever given your device, plus a few seconds of audio before you gave the command. Which means that Google is always listening through your phone. They might not be saving everything you say near the device, but they’re always listening.
And much of it is saved. In fact, you can see how much. Head to myactivity.google.com and you’ll see the data that Google has stored. If you’ve used voice search recently, you should be able to find a record of it, and even listen to the stored audio.
It’s a little unnerving, hearing the things you said to your phone played back to you from your computer
It’s a little unnerving, hearing the things you said to your phone played back to you from your computer, and knowing that it’s coming from Google’s servers.
And, of course, we all know what Google does with your information that’s stored on its servers: analyzes it and uses it to serve you ads. That, combined with the fact that your phone is always listening and ready to record audio, has privacy enthusiasts worried.
What you can do to protect your privacy from Google Voice Search
The most obvious thing you can do to mitigate the privacy concerns of using Google voice search is to simply not use it. If you turn Google Assistant off, it won’t be listening, and it won’t be recording anything.
To turn if off, open Google Assistant, then tap the blue icon in the upper-right corner. Hit the three dots in the upper-right corner of the resulting screen and select Settings. Tap the name of your device, and move the slider for Google Assistant to the off position.
Of course, that means you won’t be able to use the full power voice search. And that’s inconvenient. But if you’re concerned about privacy, it might be worth it.
Especially because Google’s voice search capabilities may not work very well when you’re using a VPN. And using a high-quality, secure VPN is one of the most important things you can do to keep your mobile data safe.
If you want to keep using voice search, you can tell Google to stop recording and storing what you say. You can do this by going to myactivity.google.com, selecting Activity Controls from the sidebar menu, and scrolling down to Voice & Audio Activity. Click the slider to pause it.
This will prevent the storage of your voice searches and activity. That means Google won’t be using it to target ads . . . but it also means that it won’t be as good at recognizing your voice, have as much data for learning speech recognition, or learn things that might help it solve your problems.
But it’s a step in the right direction for privacy.
Weigh the options
Unfortunately, keeping your data secure means not getting as many benefits from Google’s voice-recognition technologies as you might otherwise. So you’ll have to weigh the pros and cons of privacy versus the convenience of Google voice search and similar services.
In an age when privacy is increasingly threatened, it’s easy to assume that all of your data will end up in Google’s hands anyway. But if you put up a bit of a fight, you just might be able to maintain a bit of control over your data.
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