Alexa, Are You Listening?

Amazon Echo on desk
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The popularity of voice-activated speaker devices is exploding. Amazon Echo and Google Home have sold over 100 million units. However:

  • when do these devices start listening to our commands?
  • does it immediately erase our instructions after carrying them out?
  • could a human eavesdrop on our private conversations through these devices?

The answers may be more than what most users think.

To use one of these devices a wakeword is spoken, like “Alexa/Echo/Computer/Amazon” (or some other word you have set).  According to Amazon, it says that Alexa only sends your recorded voice to Amazon’s servers for processing after you have said your wakeword, like “Alexa, what time is it?”

But that leaves most users thinking that the wakeword starts Echo into listening mode. But that is simply not true: the evidence shows that Alexa is ALWAYS listening and recording EVERYTHING that is being said.

Consider Amazon’s latest patent application.  Instead of invoking a command by starting with a wakeword, Amazon thinks that is too cumbersome. They want the wakeword to be at the beginning of the statement (“Alexa, play Gloria”) or at the end of the sentence (“Play Gloria, Alexa”) or anywhere in between. This will work because, according to the Amazon patent application, “The device will go backwards through the audio IN THE BUFFER to determine the start of the utterance that includes the wakeword.”

Alexa is Always Listening to Everything and Storing It

That’s why, in late 2018, a judge in New Hampshire ordered Amazon to hand over recordings of an Echo smart speaker found in the home where a double murder took place last year. The authorities believe the Echo recordings may provide information that could put the murderer in jail.

What’s more, people at Amazon are also listening to anything you say (not just to Alexa)–because we told them it’s OK!

Earlier this year (Apr 10 2019) Bloomberg reported that a team of Amazon employees review audio clips to improve the quality of the Alexa. Each reviewer goes through about 1,000 audio clips every day. These clips are not your commands that start with the wakeword; they can be anything said within earshot of Alexa.

Here’s what the Alexa privacy settings page says: “Use Voice Recordings to Help Develop New Features – Training Alexa with recordings from a diverse range of customers helps ensure Alexa works well for everyone. When this setting is enabled, your voice recordings may be used in the development of new features. If you turn this setting off, new features may not work well for you.” It’s set On by default, so we told them it’s OK.

What also is On by default is your permission for Amazon to use for training any messages that you send via Alexa to other people. That’s right: your personal messages sent to someone else can be analyzed by a stranger.

How To Turn Off Alexa Listening

If it bothers you that Alexa is always listening, you can turn it off:

  1. Open the Alexa app on your phone.
  2. Tap the menu button on the top left of the screen.
  3. Tap Settings
  4. Select “Alexa Account.”
  5. Choose “Alexa Privacy.”
  6. Select “Manage how your data improves Alexa.”
  7. Turn off the button next to “Help Develop New Features.”
  8. Turn off the button next to your name under “Use Messages to Improve Transcriptions.”

If you want to have some fun, go back and look at all of the commands you have issued to your Echo. Open the Alexa app on your smart device:

  • tap the hamburger icon on the top left of the screen to open the menu options
  • tap “Activity” and you can browse all the commands you have ever asked of Alexa.

But Alexa is now expanding. Amazon is actively building partnerships through its Alexa Smart Properties team with home builders, property managers, and hotels to push millions of Alexa devices into homes, apartments, and hotels. They already have a partnership with Zego, a rent-payment service. Tenants can control their apartment’s thermostat and door locks, request repairs, and even pay rent all through Alexa (“Alexa, pay my rent”).

And remember these devices are not the only things that are listening to us. Don’t forget about Apple Siri and Google Assistant on our smartphones.

Alexa, are you listening? Evidently you are listening way too much.