As of January 2019, Amazon had sold over 100 million devices that include Alexa, the electronic voice assistant. Even those not interested in purchasing an Alexa-enabled device know how it works from all of Amazon’s television commercials. You say, “Alexa, what’s the weather like today?”, and she tells you. But for those interested purchasing an Alexa-linked device, one of the biggest questions people typically have is, “Is Alexa always listening?” And in a word, the answer is “Yes”. For this reason, some security experts say that smart speakers are inherently insecure, and that you shouldn’t use them. So, whether you already live with an Alexa or are simply considering shacking up with one, everyone should be aware of the impact that this electronic device can have on your privacy.
First of all, it’s important to differentiate between listening and recording. Sometimes the words are used interchangeably when discussing Alexa’s capabilities, but they actually have very different implications. The microphones in smart speakers are always listening, but in reality, they are only listening for the “wake word”, because when you want to talk to Alexa, you have to first wake her up using the “wake word” (“Alexa”, “Computer” or “Echo”). By default, Echo devices are designed to detect only your chosen wake word. However, this doesn’t mean that Alexa is always recording.
According to Amazon’s Alexa and Alexa Devices FAQs, Alexa only begins recording your conversation upon hearing the device’s wake word. When you speak to Alexa after that, a recording of what you said is sent to Amazon’s secure cloud so that they can process and respond to your request. You will always know when Alexa is recording and sending information because a blue indicator light will appear or an audio tone will sound on the device. No audio is stored or sent to the cloud unless the device detects the “wake word.”
When an Alexa-enabled device detects the wake word and begins streaming audio to the cloud, Amazon performs a “cloud verification” of the wake word using the more powerful processing capabilities of the cloud to double-check the audio to confirm detection of the selected wake word. If the cloud-verification doesn’t also detect the wake word, Alexa stops processing the audio and ends the audio stream. If Alexa does confirm detection of the wake word, Alexa will keep attempting to determine when your audio request has ended and then immediately end the audio stream.
There is another case when recordings will be sent to Amazon’s cloud, something called Alexa Guard. With Alexa Guard, you can configure supported Alexa devices to detect specific sounds, such as the sound of smoke alarms, carbon monoxide alarms and glass breaking. However, Guard will only detect these sounds and begin recording when the device is set to Away mode. In addition, Guard does not store or send audio to the cloud unless the device detects the selected sounds.
To add to this, Amazon says that there are cases when your Alexa-enabled device might interpret another word or sound as the wake word (for example, the name Alex). When this happens, it is called a “false wake.” But the more that you use your device, the better Alexa’s wake word detection will get. And as mentioned above, anytime your Alexa device detects the wake word (or false wake), a visual or audible indicator will signal that it is recording the audio stream to the cloud.
Now, let’s talk about Alexa’s Voice History feature. Voice History is a feature that allows you to play all the audio of your voice recordings that were streamed to the cloud, review the actual text transcript of what Alexa thought you said and review how Alexa responded. You can use this feature to help you better understand how Alexa works and what is being recorded. In addition, you use it to recall how Alexa has previously answered questions, such as the phone number for your favorite restaurant. And if Alexa makes a mistake, you can use this feature to determine what might have gone wrong.
You can view, hear and delete your voice recordings at any time by using the Alexa Privacy Settings or in the Alexa app. You can delete one by one, by date range, by Alexa-enabled device or all at once. You can choose to have your voice recordings older than 3 or 18 months deleted automatically. Also, you can delete by voice by saying, “Alexa, delete what I just said” or “Alexa, delete everything I said today.”
Amazon says that when you delete the voice recordings associated with your account, they will delete the voice recordings and text transcripts from Amazon’s cloud. But they say that they may retain other records of your Alexa’s interactions, including records of actions that Alexa took in response to your requests. They say that this allows them to continue to provide your alarms, reminders, timers, to-do lists and messages. And if your deleted request was processed by an Alexa skill, information may be retained by the developer of that skill (skill developers do not receive voice recordings).
This brings us back to the original question, “Is Alexa Always Listening?”. A report by Bloomberg revealed that thousands of Amazon employees are listening to what people say when they talk to Alexa. Amazon.com employs thousands of people around the world to help improve the digital assistant that powers the line of Echo speakers. The team listens to voice recordings from both homes and offices. Amazon says that they use these conversations to improve Alexa’s “understanding of human speech.” And according to Amazon’s Alexa and Alexa Devices FAQs, “Alexa uses your voice recordings and other information, including from third-party services, to answer your questions, fulfill your requests, and improve your experience and our services.”
Because of this, it’s good to know that there’s a way to prevent Amazon employees from listening in. The option to share information with Amazon is on by default, but there’s a way to turn it off. In the Alexa app, go to “Settings” and tap “Alexa Privacy.” Then tap “Manage Your Alexa Data.” Scroll down and you will see “Help improve Alexa.” There is a toggle switch that says, “Use Voice Recordings to improve Amazon Services and to Develop New Features.” There, you are able to switch to off, although if you do turn this off, Amazon says that “voice recognition and new features may not work well for you.”
What’s the bottom line? Alexa and Echo devices are designed to protect your privacy. And Alexa is also designed to get smarter every day. The more you use your device, the better Alexa’s wake word detection will get. So as long as your device is working properly, Alexa is always listening but not always recording. And although Alexa is programmed to only record audio when the wake word is spoken, there is a possibility that your Alexa will activate accidentally. So if you do decide that the reward of having an electronic personal assistant outweighs the risk of being accidentally recorded, there’s something that you can do to lock it down. Just go to your Alexa app’s device settings and disable everything that might be collecting your data.