How It Works

Alexa, are you recording everything we say?

When George Orwell wrote about the ever-watching Big Brother state of 1984, he probably didn’t predict we’d be voluntarily bringing the surveillance into our homes. 

Amazon’s Echo has been a huge success – over 31 million devices have been sold and sit in homes around the world. But how much are the network-connected microphones invading our privacy? The concerns come from the Amazon Echo constantly recording the sound around it. An Amazon Echo uses seven microphones and noise-cancelling technology while it is sitting idly on your kitchen top. It’s constantly recording just a second of ambient noise as your talk with your family, and discarding that one second and replacing it with the next. It’s anticipating a command – listening out for its’s wake word: “Alexa”. Once you use this to activate the machine, it will record everything you say until you pause, and then send the audio to Amazon’s extensive cloud system. Here it is transcribed and responds to the command. It happens in just a couple of seconds. And it works really well – you can call across to your Echo to play your favourite music, ask how to spell something, you can even play rock paper scissors or send a text message. But technology like this comes at a price – there are likely just a few moments of your day that you’re not being recorded by a smart device, whether it’s Google’s Assistant, Apple’s Siri, or an Echo

We trust that the technology is only recording and wiping over one second of ambient noise but, even so, the tech has been known to go rogue. Sending a text message is a great feature that makes our lives a little easier, but there are is a massive flaw in the system – Alexa doesn’t read your message back for confirmation, it just sents it off to the recipient with an attachment of the recorded audio. It has gone wrong earlier this year when a Portland family had their private conversation unknowingly recorded and sent to one of their contacts in Seattle. Amazon responded explaining that it was a very rare occurrence but that the Echo has mistaken parts of the conversation for ‘send message’ and for the name of the recipient of the text and audio.

The only real concern though is the recordings that are intentionally saved by the device. Every time your Echos blue light ring illuminates, they are stored and analysed by Amazon servers, but could also be listened to by anyone who had access to your phone to gain an insight into your shopping list, your music tastes, or the things you are interested in. You can listen to these recordings and delete them via the Alexa app.

It’s unnerved us a little bit, there’s certainly something creepy about being listened to by these bots, but we won’t be unplugging our Amazon Echo any time soon. Let us know your thoughts by sending us an email to howitworks@futurenet.com, leaving a comment below this post, or finding us on Twitter or Facebook.


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