Alexa, what are you doing with my data?

Alexa can provide convenient access to music and quick answers to questions. But she also listens in to what we say in the privacy of our homes, all the time.

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“Alexa, who are you?”

“I’m Alexa, and I’m designed around your voice. You can ask me to play music, answer questions, tell jokes and much more.”

Alexa is the voice of Amazon's voice-controlled virtual assistant, but she's far from the only one. Google has Google Assistant, Microsoft has Cortana, Apple has Siri, and Samsung has Bixby. These assistants have seen a rapid increase in production. In 2020, 4.2 billion digital voice assistants were online around the world. That number is forecasted to double to 8.4 billion by 2024, a figure higher than the current world population.

If you have an Alexa or any voice-controlled digital assistant at home, you may be familiar with her services. She can help you set reminders, buy your groceries (on Amazon), even provide you with real-time weather and news updates. However, when you let a voice assistant into your home, you let a device record, share, analyse your conversations at home without knowing how it will be used. Above all, an Alexa device (and any other voice-controlled assistant) always listens to everything you say. 

Although Amazon has said that Alexa will only listen if her 'wake word' is mentioned, she doesn't always comply.

There have been reports of Alexa creepily laughing even though unprompted, sending private family conversations to the owner's work colleague, to even claims of Amazon hiring contractors to listen in on our recorded conversations to improve accuracy. There is a chance for any sensitive information spoken around her to get leaked. To make matters worse, some Alexa devices have cameras built-in, opening the door for constant video recording.

So, if she's not here to give us convenience, you might ask what Alexa wants from us? One suspicion is that Amazon is analysing our recorded conversation for better-targeted advertising. As stated in their privacy policy, they "may use personal information to display interest-based ads for features, products, and services that might interest you". Amazon also registered a patent in 2018 to detect human emotions through our voices, which will enable Alexa to "respond to commands accordingly, maybe (offering) highly targeted audio content, such as audio advertisements or promotions". While patents are certainly not a final product, it hints at how Amazon plans to tackle targeted advertising in the future. Google has also started analysing our interactions with Google Assistant to deliver more relevant ads.

Since Alexa and other assistants record conversations, they also record conversations involving your children. As you might expect, this raises serious privacy concerns for children. Children are more vulnerable to threats, cannot give consent to be recorded and analysed, nor do they have the ability to delete their data. These concerns culminated in a class-action lawsuit that alleges Amazon recording children's conversations violates privacy laws in nine states in the US. Mattel, the toy company, has also stopped producing child-oriented smart assistants, following public concerns regarding the oversharing of intimate details of young children to marketers and tech giants.

What can you do to protect your privacy with an Alexa?

Delete your voice recordings.

Fortunately, Amazon allows you to delete your recordings, either individually or altogether, directly from the Alexa app (Settings > Alexa privacy> Review Voice History). While Amazon may have used some of your data already, deleting your existing recordings can help stop Amazon from analysing them even more.

Opt-out from future voice recordings

After deleting your old recordings, you can also choose not to have any of your future recordings saved by Alexa. Amazon will warn you how disabling recording might affect voice recognition (and product recommendations), but ignore this warning to prioritise your data security.

Mute Alexa's microphone

You can also mute the microphone on your Echo device. Press the mute button on your echo device, and a red light will appear, indicating that Alexa is no longer listening to conversations. Muting your Alexa will prevent you from interacting with her, but it will also stop her from eavesdropping while you speak with others.

Secure your Wi-Fi network

Secure your WiFi network will also prevent unwanted third parties and hackers from infiltrating your Alexa and listening in on your conversations. Read more about the importance of securing your WiFi network here.

The bottom line is that Alexa and other smart assistants are designed to collect and analyse data about you. Therefore, there may not be a proper solution to keep you safe from the perils of Amazon analysing your conversations. However, understanding the security concerns and following the above advice is a step in the right direction. Remember that your smart assistant works for you, not the other way around.

Download our guide What can you do to protect your privacy with an Alexa:

More to Explore:

Here's further advice and resources to support parents and children on this issue:

Alexa, how will you change us?

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Amazon’s Alexa Never Stops Listening to You. Should You Worry?

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What’s the real value—and danger—of smart assistants?

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