Don’t use smart speakers, some say, because the powers that be are listening to everyone’s private conversations. The same is happening with smartphones, smartwatches, smart fridges — and smart everything.
It all sounds a bit over-the-top and paranoid. After all, why would anyone be listening in on private conversations, especially when a majority of them are irrelevant? What would tech giants even do with all that information? It has to be a bunch of nonsense, right?
Except it’s not nonsense. It’s exactly what’s happening. Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant, and Cortana are all listening to user conversations, and even recording them. What’s more frightening, however, is that humans could be listening to those conversations too. Every time you call upon a voice assistant, and sometimes even when you don’t, there’s another person on the other end.
Due to rising pressure and privacy concerns, though, these tech companies are changing their tune.
Apple and Google announced that they would limit the way audio is recorded by their smart devices, as well as limit interactions and access afforded to contractors. Google is under investigation in the EU for this very thing, and it’s looking like they breached GDPR. As one might expect, Apple suspended its program to ensure compliance. It will be a while before we know if anyone is in monetary trouble and hit with fines as a result.
But what about Amazon and their Alexa-powered devices?
Alexa is recording your conversations, and people are listening
As reported by Bloomberg, Amazon employs “thousands of people around the world,” that listen to voice recordings captured by Echo smart devices. Those conversations — usually involving interactions with Alexa, Amazon’s voice assistant — are transcribed, annotated, and then processed.
The information is fed to powerful backend software to help Alexa better understand and respond to voice patterns and speech. So the goal isn’t necessarily to spy on or listen to private conversations. Amazon wants to make Alexa the best it can be. Nevertheless, people are listening.
But what does that mean? Is the system recording full private conversations or just snippets of voice commands, and what are the analysts accessing? What do they do after they’ve listened in?
It’s not all black and white
The truth is that sometimes, there are conversations recorded where no one called upon Alexa. In July, Alexa purportedly called the police during a domestic dispute, saving a woman’s life. At the time, Amazon claimed Alexa couldn’t do such a thing on her own. Given what we know now, it’s more likely there was a person involved.
Amazon’s analysts have also reported that they do hear things happening in households from time to time. Some have even described hearing a sexual assault occurring in real-time. Amazon does offer support for these employees to vent about distressing experiences they encounter. This likely helps them, sure, but it also means information is being passed around and talked about.
Bloomberg’s article states that recordings aren’t attached to a full name or address, but they are still associated with user accounts, the primary user’s first name, and device serial numbers. It means that if someone wanted, they could connect the voice recordings to a real person.
While this is undoubtedly beneficial for stopping nefarious events, it also means that more private conversations picked up by Alexa are being listened to, as well.
Luckily, due to a combination of increased privacy concerns, regulation, and outcry, many of these tech companies are now allowing users to download, review, and even purge personal data.
The Amazon Echo devices and Alexa voice assistant are getting the same treatment since Amazon is now allowing people to opt-out of having their conversations listened to.
How to opt-out
The good news is that users can disable the service that calls for analysts to listen-in.
To disable the feature, open the Alexa app and navigate to:
Settings > Alexa Privacy > “Manage How Your Data Improves Alexa”
This applies to a variety of Amazon and Alexa-powered devices including the Fire TV, Fire tablets, and even third-party speakers.
Keep in mind, however, that this setting merely prevents Amazon’s employees from listening to recordings and conversations captured by Echo and Alexa-powered devices. The data still exists and is stored on the company’s servers. Anyone who wants to review or purge past recordings will have to take additional measures.
It’s good to see Amazon providing their customers and users with an option to maintain their privacy, even if it is a bit late.
Photo credit: All images used are owned by Amazon and were made available for media usage.