Amazon’s electronic device is known as Echo. It is the conduit for their voice activated virtual assistant, Alexa, similar to Apple’s Homepod for Siri, and Google Home with the Google Assistant. With this device a user can find answers to many questions as well as change your thermostat, stream music, and schedule appointments. Alexa software is continuously recording snatches of audio and listening. Students can find this handy device helpful when studying, finding out information, and keeping on top of things. But is this little device spying on us?
It turns out, Amazon employees actually are listening to recorded Alexa conversations, and, the scary thing is, you can’t really turn it off. You can disable the use of your voice for development of new features (which is what they say they use our recordings for), but those people may still have their recordings analyzed by hand through the review process. (Day, online). So if you can disable it but it is not really disabled, what is the point? Amazon employees listen to hours and hours of clips which includes mundane conversations as well as possible criminal and sexual assault happening near the device.
There is even a possibility that Alexa conversations can go beyond only Amazon employees and share your personal information with others. The New York Times wrote about a woman in Portland who claims her Echo device recorded a conversation and shared it with one of her husband’s employees. (New York Times, online). With all the privacy concerns these days, I don’t think it is wise for students, businesses, or anyone, really, to take the risk of having personal information shared or leaked to others without consent. What else can they be doing with your recordings? I found that “Some employees admitted to sharing amusing recordings with other employees via an internal chat room. Others said they had heard potentially disturbing conversations between people in their homes” (independent, online). Amazon was even ordered by court to hand over recordings in a suspected homicide, which they refused to do, surprisingly. All this makes me feel uneasy.
I don’t know about you, but I think it is ridiculous that Alexa and other types of similar devices are recording you without your permission or knowledge. These conversations, possibly taken without your consent, are then uploaded to the cloud and accessible to Amazon employees, and possibly others. According to Time, “each reviewer parsing as many as 1,000 audio clips per shift, according to two workers based at Amazon’s Bucharest office” (Time, online).
Although Amazon says they take security and privacy of their customers very seriously, I don’t seem to trust that. It is up to you to decide if you do. While your full name and address are not connected to your recording file, your first name, device serial number, and account number are. This to me, makes it easy for an employee to look you up and retrieve more information such as your address.
Apple’s Siri also has humans analyzing conversations. Their recordings however, according to Google, are not connected to any identifiable information, and the audio is distorted. (Time, online). Amazon too claims that listeners don’t have access to personal information, but I disagree. Students can find usefulness in these devices, of course, so I guess it is up to each person to decide if their privacy is a concern to them or not.
This all reminds me of my course in Issues to Access & Privacy Protection at Athabasca. That course helped me learn about why it is important to protect people’s privacy and freedoms. Professionals, including psychologists, are required to keep information only as long as it is necessary. There is no information on how long Amazon is going to keep these conversations, but there is a way to delete them. But this device seems like it’s going in the opposite direction of current privacy legislation.
Once again, it is up to everyone to know what is happening and decide if they want to participate or not. Hopefully Amazon and Google, as well as other device makers, will make their plans for recording customers clearer at the time of purchase to avoid issues with privacy breaches in the future.
Day, Matt/Turner, Giles/Drozidiak, Natalia. “Thousands of Amazon Workers Listen to Alexa Users Conversations. Time Magazine. Retrieved from: http://time.com/5568815/amazon-workers-listen-to-alexa/
Cuthbertson, Anthony. “Amazon Admits Employees Liston to Alexa Conversations” Independent. Retrieved from: https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/amazon-alexa-echo-listening-spy-security-a8865056.html
Chokshi, Niraj. “Is Alexa Listening? Amazon Echo Sent Out Recording of Couple’s Conversation”. The New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/25/business/amazon-alexa-conversation-shared-echo.html
[Editor’s note: This story originally called the Amazon device Alexa in error. Fortunately for us, an observant reader spotted it and let us know.]