Amazon’s Alexa is Always Listening

Virtual assistants are pretty cool, but what happens when they are violating peoples privacy? [Public domain]
the Amazon Alexa app logo, this app allows you to use your device

Amazon released Alexa in November 2014. She is a virtual assistant very similar to Apple’s Siri, and is available on several different devices. The Amazon Smart Speaker, Echo Dot, Smart Assistant and Fire Tablet. There are about 5,000 people working on amazon Alexa, including workers who transcribe recordings, annotate them, and then feed it back to Amazon’s software. These recordings are taken from Alexa users and are used to develop new products. If you choose you do not want your conversations listened to, you can turn this function off, although even if you turn it off your recordings may still be analyzed. The option to share this information can be turned off, but it’s turned on by default. Amazon came out to CNN Business that it hires people to listen to what customers say to Alexa. The company says it takes “security and privacy of our customer’s personal information seriously.’’ Amazon also states the company only annotates an “extremely small number of interactions from a random set of customers.” A spokesperson clarified that no data is stored unless the Alexa enabled device is activated by a wake word.

Amelia Botts
An Amazon Fire Tablet is an example of a device connected through Alexa.

People have come out and said their Alexa is always listening to them. Even though Amazon admitted that their devices do “listen” and analyze people recordings, device users are not happy with this violation of privacy. This issue raises concerns, as it should, because people are now becoming more sensitive to the issue. Some have reported Alexa is now  randomly laughing at them and “creeping” users out. Of course the company has come out and stated that Alexa sometimes misinterprets the word “laugh” and starts laughing. Amazon has since changed this setting and instead of being activated just by the word “laugh” it’s now activated by “Alexa, can you laugh?” The company now promises that the Alexa is not “possessed” and it was just an error. Alexa is well known for misinterpreting words for another word. When Jordan Simpson, (LHS sophomore), was asked if her Echo Dot ever awakens without her telling it to, she replied, “Sometimes when my mom’s in the other room talking Alexa will activate and scare me.”

Amelia Botts
An Echo Dot is a voice controlled smart speaker with Alexa.

There was a woman in Portland, Oregon who reported to a local television news station that her Amazon Echo device had recorded a conversation between her and her husband, and sent it to one of her husband’s employees. For some time now people have questioned, “what would happen if digital assistants like Alexa went rogue?” they would be able to share thousands of people’s information. Privacy advocates have warned the public for a long time and it appears to have finally happened. An Amazon Echo device misinterpreted a couple’s conversation and thought they wanted the conversation recorded and sent to one of the husband’s contacts in his phone. The couple said they had no memory of their device confirming the audio being recorded and sent to this person. Amazon explained what might’ve occurred and why this was just a mistake in the system. The couple did not believe the company and have since unplugged their devices saying they will never plug them back in and never use them again. Last year amazon embroiled in another controversy for privacy concerns regarding Alexa. An Echo user has said that the smart speaker had recorded a conversation without their knowledge and sent the audio to an Amazon employee. Amazon confirmed the error and said the device’s always listening microphones had misheard a series of words and accidentally sent the message.

Amelia Botts
Jordan Simpson is an owner of an Amazon Echo Dot and claims her Alexa misinterprets words all the time.

When LHS Sophomore, Lily King was questioned if she would ever buy any Alexa devices she replied “No, I like my conversation to stay private, and not be listened to by complete strangers.”Amazon needs to find a way to fix these issues, and make their Alexa devices more trustworthy. So that in the future they don’t lose customers, and there aren’t as many controversies surrounding their company and products. If Amazon can find a way to fix some settings, these digital assistants could change and help so much.