Google Smart Speakers Offer Guest Mode for Privacy

The voice-activated setting stops speakers from collecting data about your interactions

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Google smart speakers are getting a new setting that will allow consumers to significantly boost the privacy of their devices using voice commands, instead of having to sort through menus on the Home app.

The new setting, called Guest Mode, limits the device's ability to collect data about users' interactions with Google Assistant on the speaker, while retaining most of the popular functionality, including the option to field questions, play music, set timers, and control smart home devices.

Guest Mode is available now on all Google smart speakers, as well as Google-compatible models from other manufacturers, and can be activated by saying "Hey, Google, turn on Guest Mode."

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"Google Assistant is designed to automatically safeguard your privacy and offer simple ways for you to control how it works with your data," said the company in a blog post.

As the name suggests, Guest Mode can be used when you have company; it protects your guests' privacy and also keeps their requests from altering the personalization of your device. But since the setting limits data collection while keeping the speaker's most important functionality intact, Guest Mode is a good way to protect your own personal data, too.

Guest Mode does have its limitations. It prevents Google Assistant from using account information from, for example, your Calendar or Contact list. And it does limit the speaker's personalization, although not in a way that you're likely to notice.

"It's a good option to offer," says Justin Brookman, director of privacy and technology policy for Consumer Reports. "For some people—at some times—the value from personalization may be outweighed by privacy considerations."

When you use a function that accesses an outside application or service—like Google Maps or a third-party music service like Spotify—that app is still probably collecting information about your activity, even if your smart speaker isn't.

Deleting More Than the Recordings

To fully grasp what Guest Mode does, it helps to understand what information a smart speaker collects.

First, it can keep a record of everything you say as both an audio file and a written transcript ("Hey, Google, turn off my office light.")

Google lets you see and delete these recordings and transcripts and set up the speaker so that they're either not saved or deleted automatically.

But even when it's set up so recordings are not saved, your smart speaker keeps a log of your activity, which can be used to build a profile of your behavior. It knows, for example, that you asked for the office light to be turned off at 8:03 p.m. on Tuesday.

When it's in Guest Mode, the speaker no longer keeps a record of interactions like those.

"In Guest Mode, your interactions with the Assistant will be immediately deleted, just like if you went to the My Activity tab on the Home App and clicked "delete," but you don’t have to take that step," said a Google spokesperson in an email to Consumer Reports.

Guest Mode can also be turned off by voice command ("Hey, Google, turn off Guest Mode"). You can ask the speaker if Guest Mode is enabled, as well.

Google has introduced a number of other privacy improvements that make it easier for consumers to use its smart speakers. Google Assistant can now answer questions about security ("Hey, Google, how do you keep my information private?") and quickly delete things you say ("Hey, Google, delete what I just said" or "Hey, Google, delete everything I said this week.")

The company also allows you to adjust the speaker's sensitivity to the "Hey, Google" wakeword. In the Google Home App, select the Home button on the left, then the device name > Settings > Hey Google sensitivity and adjust the slider.

As researchers at Northeastern University have demonstrated, smart speakers often start recording after hearing a phrase that sounds like the wakeword, although they stop recording quickly when the error becomes apparent.

Allen St. John

I believe that technology has the power to change our lives—for better or for worse. That's why I’ve spent my life reporting and writing about it for outlets of all sorts, from newspapers (such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times) to magazines (Popular Mechanics and Rolling Stone) and even my own books ("Newton’s Football" and "Clapton’s Guitar"). For me, there's no better way to spend a day than talking to a bunch of experts about an important subject and then writing a story that'll help others be smarter and better informed.