When you invite a digital voice assistant like Amazon Alexa into your home, you’re inviting a device that records and stores things you say, which will be analyzed by a computer, and maybe by a human. You won’t always know what happens with those recordings.
After all, an Alexa speaker, like the Echo or Dot, is an always-on listening device. Although it’s designed to listen only when called upon, sometimes it doesn’t play by its own rules. And sometimes it (as well as Amazon) behaves in ways that would justifiably make anyone worry about their privacy and security, as illustrated in a recent story in The Sun that claims Alexa may be privy to your intimate moments.
Alexa is studying you
The fact is that your Echo, Dot, or Show is always eavesdropping. This is and isn’t as creepy as it sounds. Although it’s true that the device can hear everything you say within range of its far-field microphones, it is listening for its wake word before it actually starts recording anything (“Alexa” is the default, but you can change it to “Echo,” “Amazon,” or “computer”). Once it hears that, everything in the following few seconds is perceived to be a command or a request, and it’s sent up to Amazon’s cloud computers, where the correct response is triggered. You know your Echo is paying attention because the circular blue light turns on when it hears its name. Think of Echo like a dog: It’s always listening, but it understands only “cookie,” “walk,” or “Buddy.” Everything else goes right over its head.
Anyone who owns a smart speaker, uses a smartphone, posts on social media, or in some other way interacts with the Internet has likely experienced a few weird “coincidences.” Maybe you recently talked about something with a friend and then weirdly started seeing ads on the Internet for whatever it was. It’s creepy. And it probably makes you wonder to what extent your gadgets are spying on you.
Alexa does make mistakes when listening. Anyone who’s lived with an Echo has experienced Alexa mishearing and responding to queries no one asked. Sometimes this can be funny—like when Alexa hears its own wake word in a TV show. Other times it’s more serious, including an instance in 2018 when Alexa apparently thought it heard a command to send a message and instead sent an entire private conversation to a stranger’s Echo device.
Though Alexa selectively listens for its wake word, it can’t selectively filter out voices. This means that anyone in the room is potentially subject to its listening and recording powers. So any child or house guest may be engaging (knowingly or not) with Alexa. Recording a child without parental permission is illegal in some states, similar to video recording laws. In June 2019 Amazon was hit with two lawsuits over Alexa recording children’s voices without the consent of the parents, and the result of this is still pending.
Alexa isn’t alone in its listening abilities. Apple’s Siri and Google’s Google Assistant work (and sometimes don’t work) in very similar ways.
Who is actually listening?
For the most part, the ear on the other side of Alexa is an algorithm: a computer program that processes the words, figures out what they mean, and responds appropriately. That fact that it does this so quickly (usually in just a few seconds) and correctly is what makes smart speakers so easy to live with. However, that doesn’t happen by magic.
There are always humans somewhere behind the curtain pulling the levers, and occasionally there are even humans listening to your requests for weather reports in Punxsutawney, and trying to figure out what you meant when you added mangosteens to your shopping list. An article in Bloomberg revealed that Amazon employs thousands of people, including some outside the US, to transcribe and annotate Alexa requests in an effort to improve the voice assistant’s performance. The company says the information is anonymous and encrypted, but the Bloomberg article states that the recordings analyzed by Amazon’s transcribers can include first names, device serial numbers, and account numbers. It’s also unclear whether all that information is linked in a way that would let employees identify the user or household. After a lot of bad press on the topic, Amazon gave Alexa users the option to prevent human screeners from listening to their recordings. You can do this by going to the Privacy section of the settings menu and opting out of allowing your recordings to be used by Alexa developers.
Amazon is not the only one doing this. A Belgian news report revealed that subcontractors for Google are also listening to and transcribing some Google Assistant voice recordings, many of which were recorded accidentally and could contain sensitive personal information. Google followed up, saying that it uses “language experts” to analyze around 0.2 percent of voice messages, but that those recordings are not associated with users’ accounts and are essentially anonymous. Like Amazon and Google, Apple also employs humans to make Siri work better, and recordings may be saved for up to two years. But the company says that all transferred data is stripped of its identifiers so it can’t be traced back to you or your Apple ID. The company recently said it is“suspending” the practice of using human “graders” while it does a review of the process.
Alexa is a data hoarder
When Alexa hears a command and sends those words up to the cloud, Amazon has just learned something about you. Maybe the company learned only that you like to listen to the Police, or that you like fart jokes, or that you turn your Hue lights off at 11 p.m. every night. If you were to say, “Alexa, where should I bury the body?” you’re not going to have the police showing up at your door (I know because I’ve tried it).
Is it important that Amazon is collecting this information? That’s up to you to decide. Your computer is tracking everything you do online through cookies. Google knows everything you’ve ever searched for, and also everything you’ve ever bought when you used a Gmail address. Your broadband provider may be selling your browsing and location history to third parties, and Netflix knows you like torture, horror, and cooking shows (yes, you’re weird). Primarily, Amazon wants to sell you stuff. Lots of stuff. So when you use a workout skill with your Echo, don’t be surprised if Amazon sends you an email promoting yoga pants (this hasn’t happened to me yet).
What should you do to protect your privacy?
To answer that question, you need to ask yourself whether these potential risks make you feel vulnerable. It’s a balance of trust between how worried you are, what you have to lose, and what you’re willing to sacrifice for the convenience provided by a smart speaker like the Echo. If you trust that Amazon’s intentions are no more nefarious than getting a better idea of what you want to buy on Prime Day, and that doesn’t really bother you, then you have your answer. If you worry about your private information getting into the hands of the wrong people, then you have another answer.
To keep outside hackers from gaining access to your smart speakers, we offer the same advice we would for usingany smart-home devices. Use strong and unique passwords (and that goes for your Wi-Fi network, as well), use quality routers and guest networks, and engage two-factor authentication whenever it’s available. If you use an Alexa device, review your Alexa privacy settings, and manage your third-party skills and your smart-home device history.
Restricting access from the manufacturer itself (and its subcontractors) is another thing completely, and as we’ve pointed out already, it may be beyond your control.
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The short answer is yes, Alexa is always listening to you. Or, rather, the microphone on your Alexa smart speaker is always active (by default, at least) and is constantly monitoring voices in your home in order to hear its wake word.What are the dangers of having Alexa in your home? ›
Keep your Echo away from all the windows in your house. The location could potentially give anyone from the outside access to your Echo, and that could give access to your other smart home devices. For example, if your car is connected to your smart speaker, someone may be able to unlock and start it.How do you get Amazon to stop listening to me? ›
To opt out of voice recordings, follow these steps: In the Alexa app, go to Settings > Alexa Privacy > Manage Your Alexa Data. From here, select Choose How Long to Save Recordings > Don't Save Recordings > Confirm. Next, scroll down to Help Improve Alexa, and switch the Use of Voice Recordings to off.Can Alexa be hacked to listen to conversations? ›
Is It Possible To Hack Alexa To Listen In On Conversations? Yes, hackers can hack into your Alexa device and gain access to personal data and listen in on previously recorded or live conversations. These hacks are widely known, leaving users vulnerable to a hack by a malicious individual.Does Alexa ever stop listening? ›
However, it's a truth that yes, Alexa is always listening. Don't fear however as Alexa is only 'passively listening' and on-call for the Alexa 'wake' word so it can respond to your requests.Should I unplug Alexa at night? ›
“The best solution is to unplug it to prevent the MEMs microphones from activating,” McCarty says. “Unplugging will be the best choice until Amazon introduces mechanical microphone disconnect switches into Alexa.” But why would you even want to unplug your Alexa? Simple: to protect your privacy and security at home.Why should you not have Alexa in bedroom? ›
Amazon Alexa captures personal conversations, warn experts.
Now, experts have warned that you can keep your device anywhere in your house, but you should not keep it in your bedroom. The experts have flagged the concerns of privacy breaches.
How Safe Is Alexa? Alexa employs artificial intelligence to improve voice recognition and cater to the user. Most of this is accomplished through machine learning, but Amazon also has a human quality-control team that reviews user recordings to ensure Alexa's accuracy.Can someone else connect to my Alexa? ›
Anyone who wishes to connect to your Echo device would need to follow the same steps to set up Voice ID and activate Guest Connect. To allow people to connect to your own Echo, you must turn on Guest Connect for the device. Do this from More > Settings > Account Settings > Guest Connect in the app.Is Amazon listening to my conversations? ›
Is Alexa still listening and recording everything I say? No. Alexa is a part of your life only when you ask Alexa to be. By default, Alexa begins listening after your Echo device detects the wake word, so Alexa does not listen to your personal conversations.
According to Florian Schaub, Assistant Professor in the University of Michigan School of Information, the microphones in these smart speakers “are always listening, but, by default, they are only listening for the 'wake word' or the activation keyword.” Since the whole purpose behind the device is to instantly respond ...Can someone hear your conversations through your phone? ›
Both cell phones and landlines can be tapped. If a hacker wants to tap your cell phone, they can do so by installing (or getting you to install) spyware on your iPhone or Android. And if law enforcement wants to listen in on your calls on any type of phone, all they'll need to do is contact your carrier.Can Alexa only listen to me? ›
You may wonder if Alexa is listening to conversations, or listening to everything you say. You may want to know whether Alexa listens to you when you're not directly interacting with an Echo device. The answer to those questions is no. Alexa and all of our Echo devices are designed with your privacy in mind.Is Alexa working for the CIA? ›
Amazon's Alexa is NOT working for the CIA.Does Alexa have cameras? ›
Echo smart speakers are built with:
Explore microphone controls. Camera off buttons and built-in camera shutters for extra peace of mind. Light indicators so you can see when Alexa is listening to your request and sending it to Amazon's secure cloud.
A cyan spotlight on a blue ring means that Alexa is listening. The light ring glimmers briefly when Alexa has heard and is processing your request. A briefly glimmering blue light might also mean the device is receiving a software update.