The eavesdropping Alexa … is it really that much of a shock?

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05/15/2019

For the past few weeks, I have been rather intrigued with IoT devices, smart homes, and security and safety of people in this context. (After all, aren’t our homes supposed to be our safe haven … our place of escape from the crazy, hurried world we live in?) After perusing the internet regarding this topic, I thought I had read about almost everything imaginable, but I was thrown a curve ball by a man, Geoffrey A. Fowler, technology columnist, The Washington Post, who literally made a song out of the recordings Alexa had of him! (Click here to listen.) 

Fowler reported that he listened to four years of his Alexa archive that highlighted fragments of his life: spaghetti-timer requests, houseguests joking and random snippets of a once-popular TV show. Alexa even captured and recorded sensitive conversations—a family discussion about medication and a friend conducting a business deal—apparently triggered by Alexa’s “wake word” to start recording. So, why are tech companies recording and saving our voice data? According to Amazon, “when using an Alexa-enabled device, the voice recordings associated with your account are used to improve the accuracy of the results.” 

Fact or fiction? Maybe both, because another main reason is to train their artificial intelligence (AI). 

I may be going out on a limb here, but if people’s voice data is being recorded and USED without their knowledge, isn’t this an invasion of privacy? I say, “Yes, without a doubt!” Not only that, but shouldn’t these tech companies hire and pay people for their voice data to train their AI? I mean, “free” saves the companies money, but to the extent of people’s private conversations and information being recorded and used without permission?  

So, what can be done? Defeating the purpose of Alexa would be to mute its microphone or unplug it, but, in my opinion, if I was going to have a private conversation, that would be better than putting my personal business out there. Another option would be to delete Alexa voice recordings, but Amazon warns

  • “If you delete voice recordings, it could degrade your experience when using the device.” 
  • “Deleting voice recordings does not delete your Alexa Messages.” 
  • “You may be able to review and play back voice recordings as the deletion request is being processed.” 

(I wonder what a “degraded Alexa experience” entails and I also wonder how long it takes to process a deletion request, as during this time voice data can be used.)

For me personally, I will stick with the “old-fashioned” way of living to preserve and protect my privacy—physically stand up, walk over to the window and close/open the blinds by hand; set alarms manually on my smartphone or built-in timer on my microwave; and even use the remote to turn the TV off and on, change channels and control the volume. 

By the way, don’t forget to listen to your own Alexa archive here or in the Alexa app: Settings > Alexa Account > Alexa Privacy. What all does Alexa have on you?