Smart speakers and their cousins smart displays and smart thermostats are the new darlings of the consumer tech market. The convenience and sometimes entertainment provided by these products and services seem to outweigh privacy concerns in users’ minds. Many simply accept that companies need them to improve their service and presume said companies will protect their privacy. That’s not always the case and, thanks to a series of reports from various news sources, Amazon’s Alexa might come out as the worst offender.
Here are the facts that Amazon itself is willing to confirm. Alexa, via the Echo or third-party speakers, does record audio but Amazon insists that it happens only when it hears the wake word (usually “Alexa”). It also confirms that these recordings are kept and processed to improve the service. Unfortunately, that’s not the end of the story as The Washington Post’s report points out.
For one, it cites the recent revelation that these recordings are, in fact, heard by human “auditors”, something the company didn’t fully disclose before. Amazon insists that it takes great care to protect the privacy and anonymity of these recordings but follow up reports indicate that might not always be the case. Add that to the fact that Alexa mishears phrases and words as the trigger, and you’ve got a recipe for an embarrassing privacy nightmare.
The Post’s Geoffrey Fowler points out another problem with Amazon’s system. It doesn’t give users the option to stop Alexa from saving these audio clips in the first place. It does have an option to delete your activity history but only if you know where to look and remember to delete it regularly. Otherwise, Alexa will always be recording your utterances and sending them to strangers.
Amazon and other companies that provide similar services would argue that they need that data to improve their AI, which is technically true. Google, however, surprisingly provides an option not to save those commands after they have been processed and used. Apple, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to be interested in that data at all and simply lets smart speakers and iPhones communicated directly with one another. Then again, that could explain why Siri isn’t highly regarded to be as smart as Alexa or Google Assistant in that aspect.