Rumors that Alexa is always recording or could be easily abused to give hackers access to your personal information have been around ever since the Amazon Echo first appeared on the scene. Despite being easily debunked, these myths have put some people off smart speakers in general.
We’re here to dispel many of the most common myths about Alexa.
1. Alexa is always listening and recording everything
Since you can say “Alexa” at any time to start a dialogue with Alexa, it makes sense that the virtual assistant would always listen and record what you say. However, only the first part is true. Alexa listens all the time, but only for the word “Alexa.”
Instead of actively recording constantly, Alexa listens passively to detect the specific sound waves that the word “Alexa” makes, ignoring everything else. As soon as you say the wake word, Alexa will start recording. It listens to your request and then uploads a transcript to Amazon’s cloud servers, where your request is immediately analyzed and fulfilled.
You’ll know when Alexa is actively recording because a blue light indicator appears, like the blue light ring on the bottom of an Amazon Echo.
2. There is no way to see what Alexa is recording
When you start talking directly to Alexa, your requests are analyzed and stored in Amazon’s cloud. Your voice history is stored for two reasons: for easy retrieval by Alexa users and to help Amazon refine and improve Alexa’s services.
You can easily see what Alexa has recorded – in fact you can see and hear everything Alexa has heard since you started interacting with it in the Alexa app, available for iOS and android. To see everything your Echo records, open the Alexa app and go to More > Settings > Alexa Privacy > View Voice History.
Here you can see a transcript of what Alexa heard, the time and date it was recorded, in addition to an audio recording. You can filter by devices and profiles and see your entire speech history. You can also delete specific recordings or delete all recordings from a certain period.
If you’re concerned about your privacy when using Alexa, follow the steps outlined in our article on easy ways to protect your privacy with Alexa.
3. Your data is easily accessible to hackers
The idea that hackers can easily spy on you with Alexa is false. It is important to note that Alexa can be vulnerable to hacking just like any other electronic device. But almost all verifiable evidence that an Echo is being hacked requires physical access or user supervision.
For example, a study found that researchers could install fake skills by using slightly different names. They managed to trick Alexa by creating a skill called “Capital Won” and installing it by saying “Alexa, install Capital One”. However, this is easily prevented by simply verifying and installing the skill in the Alexa app or on the Amazon website.
There are no recorded instances where hackers could do anything other than give commands or listen to commands using fake skills. According to Amazon, they encrypt all data sent to the cloud and your Alexa device, continuously perform security assessments, and continuously roll out automatically installed software updates. This is used alongside extensive manual and automated penetration testing, which mitigate vulnerabilities before malicious actors discover them.
4. Alexa can do almost anything
While it may seem like Alexa can do it all, given its ability to run your errands, order pizza, and turn off every light in your house at once, it’s far from the case. There are many things it can do, but just as many (or more) things it cannot.
Some of these limitations are due to the current state of AI technology. Most of Alexa’s “hard” features, such as routines, flash briefings, and announcements, were built by Amazon’s developers and are relatively simple, despite its ability to improve our lives. For example, routines are just an extension of the classic If statement: if a trigger is met, perform an action or series of actions.
However, Alexa’s language processing skills are limited. Questions like “how many legs does an elephant have?” will ask Alexa to use his AI skills to search the web and determine the answer to four. But if you ask Alexa, “how many legs do 10 elephants have?” it will say four because it can’t yet process the demand as naturally as we’d like.
As a private company, Amazon tactically decides not to include or limit certain features and integrations in order to maintain a competitive advantage. Due to their limited resources, some functions take precedence over others, while others are not technically feasible. Ultimately, it may seem like Alexa can’t get any better, but it still has a long way to go before it becomes the voice assistant that can truly do it all.
5. Amazon uses your personal conversations for targeted advertising
The emphasis here is on the word ‘personal’. As mentioned before, Alexa will only record speech after hearing its wake word. No face-to-face conversations are recorded, no matter how bizarre it may be to promote something you were just talking about (these ads are often based on web searches or predictions based on other people’s searches.)
But that’s not to say Amazon won’t use your conversations with Alexa to target ads. Anything you say to Alexa is fair game and is used to build a profile that allows Amazon to more effectively tailor ads to your persona. For example, if you regularly ask Alexa for home improvement advice, you may see more ads for home improvement tools.
It is important to note that although concerns have been raised in a study of ad targeting in the Alexa ecosystemAn Amazon representative responded by saying that the company “is not in the business of selling our customers’ personal information” and that they “do not share the Alexa requests with ad networks.”
6. Drop-in can be abused to let everyone in your house listen in
Drop In is a feature that allows you to communicate directly through another Alexa device. Unlike a phone call, there is no option to decline a Drop In. This may lead you to think that the Drop In feature can be easily abused and that anyone can listen at any time.
However, there are several immediate obstacles to this. First, Drop In from an Echo outside your home is disabled by default. Second, you have to give explicit permission to anyone who wants to invade, and they have to be in your contacts before they can be allowed. Finally, Alexa plays a unique sound indicating that a Drop In has begun.
In addition to Amazon’s robust security features that prevent third-party access through their servers, these privacy settings enabled by default ensure that no one can use the Drop In feature without your permission.
Still not convinced? Use Occam’s Razor
Occam’s Razor states that the most likely explanation for an event is usually the simplest or requires the fewest assumptions.
With issues like Alexa recording everything you say or using your conversations for targeted advertising, Amazon is far more likely to be honest than deceitful. It’s not worth Amazon’s financial and reputational risk to betray its customers in an elaborate, secret data-gathering program.
Hopefully this article has put your mind at ease about some of the myths surrounding Alexa.