What does Alexa know, and when did she start knowing it?
A friend of mine is in the habit of unplugging Alexa on the theory that just because you don't say "Alexa" doesn't mean she's not eavesdropping. He'll leave it to other family members to figure out why the helpful little tabletop assistant seems to have turned a deaf ear.
His fear is not unfounded. A May 2019 article in The Washington Post began: "Would you let a stranger eavesdrop in your home and keep the recordings? For most people, the answer is, 'Are you crazy?'
"Yet that’s essentially what Amazon has been doing to millions of us with its assistant Alexa in microphone-equipped Echo speakers. And it’s hardly alone: Bugging our homes is Silicon Valley’s next frontier."
It went on to say that many smart-speaker owners "don’t realize it, but Amazon keeps a copy of everything Alexa records after it hears its name."
It's the last few words of that sentence that makes the difference: Amazon keeps a copy of what Alexa records "after it hears its name."
Alexa is always listening. But Amazon officials say that is different from recording. The speaker is listening for "Alexa," which is its "wake up" word to start recording what follows. It records so it can learn to better understand its users in the future.
That's Amazon's explanation. Whether consumers believe it is another matter.
There is a way that Alexa can try to gain trust in a household: Just ask her. Or him — it's possible to change the woke word to "Ziggy" using the Alexa smartphone app. And in keeping with the name, it's also possible, using the same app, to give Alexa (a.k.a. Ziggy; a.k.a. Computer) a masculine voice.
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So, just ask Alexa:
• "What are my privacy settings?" You'll be told how long your voice recordings will be saved. You'll also be told if those recordings can be reviewed by a human to improve Alexa's answers. You'll also be sent a link to adjust your privacy settings.
• "Delete what I just said.” That will erase voice recordings made during the last 10 minutes.
• "Delete everything I've ever said," will delete all voice recordings.
• "Tell me what you heard." You'll hear your most recent recorded requests.
• "Alexa, why did you do that?“ The answer will be a short explanation on why the last response was what it was.
Maybe that will make my friend feel a little better about Alexa. Or maybe he'll just recite the quote from Joseph Heller's "Catch 22" novel: "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you.”
One more thing
One of the things that Alexa can do that seems to be a little-known feature: Ask, "Alexa, find my phone." Alexa will call the phone, and it will ring through (or vibrate if in the silence mode.) Using the feature requires an easy setup using the Alexa app.
Lonnie Brown can be reached at LedgerDatabase@aol.com.
This article originally appeared on The Ledger: Alexa is saving some of your conversations. But you can ask her about it