FAQ: What Are Microphone Switches and Why Are They So Important?

Amazon Echo Show Settings Credit: Nick Beer / Shutterstock
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With the growing number of mics in our homes, listening for voice commands, it’s understandable to be worried about privacy. What if someone is listening in? That brings us to a very important invention: the microphone switch. If you’re interested in smart privacy for your voice assistants, it’s important to know what this switch is and how it works!

What Is a Microphone Switch?

With today’s voice assistants, devices need to have mics that are more or less, always listening for their identifiers (Alexa, Hey Siri, etc.) to wake up and pay attention to commands. This creates some worries about privacy – if a mic is always listening, can it pick up personal information that a company can take? Could someone hack into the mic and use it to gather sensitive information by listening in on conversations around the home?

Answers to these privacy concerns aren’t always reassuring. Although there’s no widespread evidence that hacking attempts like this are happening, there are ways of controlling smart devices from afar. And while companies are quick to remind everyone that they don’t collect personal information, sometimes they actually do save and listen to conversations. So brands have started including microphone switches in their devices – a dedicated switch for turning microphones off entirely whenever users want to ensure absolute privacy.

Do Apple Devices Have This Switch?

Apple’s foray into microphone switches is limited so far, but it looks like efforts will ramp up in the near future. For now, switches are confirmed in two different devices. The first device is, to no surprise, Apple’s HomePod, which has an always-on mic.

The HomePod doesn’t have a physical mic switch, but allows you to control it in a roundabout way – you say, “Hey Siri, stop listening,” and the mic will shut off. Of course, now Siri won’t be able to hear your commands at all, so you need to open up the Home app and turn the mic back on when you want to give voice commands again.

But Apple’s working on a new, more intuitive type of mic switch, built into its T2 security chip that’s present in all sorts of Apple devices. This switch is slated to arrive with the new iPads coming sometime in 2020 (probably). It also won’t be a physical switch, but it will be automatic: When the device is put to sleep – when a MacBook’s lid closes, for example – the microphone will automatically shut off. That allows users to know the mic will only be on when their Apple device is on, ensuring a greater level of privacy. 

What About Other Mic Devices in My Home?

The newest waves of smart devices (with any voice assistant compatibility) tend to come with microphone switches due to increased pressure on privacy, and how more devices are designed to be used in all areas of the house. All of the newest Echos for example, come with a physical switch that shuts the mic off entirely – for Echo Show devices, these switches shut off mics and cameras together. Nest smart devices have similar shut-off options.

However, other mic shutoff options aren’t guaranteed. Early Google Home devices were so bad at this that Google had to admit its speakers were accidentally eavesdropping on people. Other devices, such as speaker bars or thermostats that use Alexa, may also have limited privacy capabilities. If this is important to you, always look for a mic switch of some kind.

Does a Mic Switch Really Work?

For those especially interested in privacy, there’s a worry that hackers may be able to turn mic switches back on remotely. This is one thing that physical switches are designed to prevent. They turn off access to the mic on the electronic level, disabling it completely until the switch is turned back on.

Apple’s automatic mic switch would also turn the mic off at the electronic level, but then it would turn back on when the device was re-activated, which does raise some concerns about hacking attempts. However, it’s certainly safer than no switch at all.

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