Alexa is listening to everything you say
Really? Why? So what? Do you need to care?
Any smart device with which you can verbally interact is waiting to listen. That’s a statement of the obvious - surely.
This article looks at when these devices start listening, when and why would some unknown person listen to and use what you say, and what you may want to consider in your use of such devices.
There is a broad range of Alexa compatible devices from the seemingly ubiquitous Echo to third party products such as 'smart plugs'. If you have bought yourself an Echo it makes sense that you are expecting to verbally interact with your new device. But do you know how this works and that it's recording you? To grab your device's attention you either press one of the very few buttons on it or say (or shout) a chosen 'wake-word'. For an Echo device this is Alexa, Amazon, Computer or Echo by default. It is sensible to assume that that means it is always listening in a sense, otherwise how would it know when you've spoken the correct incantation to summon Alexa and her services? The important thing is to know how it 'listens' and what is done with this information. Before you say your wake word, your device will be in a sort of idle state and nothing you say is being recorded or sent to the Cloud, it is simply waiting to match the acoustic patterns (sounds) around it to those you make when you say your wake-word. However, once your device has been activated, your query *is* being recorded and streamed to Amazon's servers where there is a chance they will be listened to by humans.
As advanced as technology is it is fallible: it is possible that it will incorrectly match the sounds it has picked up and detect your wake-word. There is a step where your recording goes to the cloud for a “cloud verification” where it checks whether it does believe your wake word was spoken. If this verification fails, the audio streaming stops. This will limit but not eliminate all 'false-wakes' such as talking to someone called Alex or "Alexa" being said on the radio etc.
Whether the activation was intentional or not, your device will have a visual cue that it is recording and streaming audio, a blue light in the Echo's case.
What does Alexa listen to? Why?
As soon as Alexa is awake then it is waiting for you to ask it something. What you next say is sent to Amazon so it can work out what you have asked and respond to what it thinks is a request. It won’t stop sending a recording of what you say until it thinks you have finished your request. Why? Well that’s what you bought it for in the first place – to do something that you ask, be it to play music, turn on the lights, tell you the weather, message someone on your contacts list or find the answer to a general query and so on.
Amazon states: “As a result of those actions, you might supply us with such information as: your name; address and phone number; payment information; your age; your location information; people to whom purchases have been dispatched or people listed settings (including addresses and phone numbers); e-mail addresses of your friends and other people; content of reviews and e-mails to us; personal description and photograph in Your Profile; voice recordings when you speak to "Alexa;”
All of this is stored in the ‘Amazon Cloud’, not on your device
Who in Amazon might listen to what I say?
According to Amazon "a team of world-class scientists and engineers" are working towards eliminating false wakes. As part of this they will surely be looking at improving voice recognition overall. To do this they need as many samples of voices as possible. Where else but use the store of recordings of voices made by the likes of you or I. So it could be anyone in this faceless pool of people. Amazon state that the voice samples are not connected to any account information that may identify us.
So what, and should I care?
There are a number of people who are publicly questioning Amazon’s use of voice recordings. Even considering legal action.
At the end of the day you need to weigh up what you have bought your device for against what Amazon may or not use your information and recordings for to improve the service they provide to you.
What to do
Make an informed decision on use of any smart device and the pros and cons of doing so. As in look at the risk and whether it is acceptable to you balanced against what you get from using the device.
If you do use one then consider:
- Reviewing the privacy and security settings for each device when you set it up and on a regular basis
- Turning off the microphone, or even turn the device off completely, when you do not want to use it.
- For voice activated devices, delete voice recordings from your account. You could even consider doing this after each time you use the device. If the latter do bear in mind that this may lead to a less personalised experience and reduce some functionality.