Does Alexa Listen to Everything I Say?

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With tens of millions of people now using smart speakers in their homes and businesses, the question of whether devices such as the Amazon Echo or Google Home may be being used to listen into private conversations is a real concern for many.

First of all, it’s worth remembering what smart speakers have been designed to do. Every day, millions of people use their smart speakers to do everything from playing their favourite song to finding out the day’s weather forecast. In addition, smart speakers are often used to answer questions about everything from what to cook for dinner, to what is the latest Brexit news. Indeed, they could be described as smart listeners, rather than simply smart speakers, as their job is to listen carefully to what we’re saying and respond appropriately.

It is this ability to make sense of what we say and then provide a suitable response, that is key to understanding whether or not smart speakers are listening in to what we say all, or just some, of the time. For example, take Alexa. Like a large number of software tools, Amazon’s digital assistant is built to learn from experience. This learning, or training if you like, is not, like many people assume, carried out without any human input. It is actually quite the contrary, as there is an important human role in training software algorithms involved in devices such as the Amazon Echo.

According to Bloomberg, Amazon employs thousands of people whose job it is to help to improve Alexa. These employees listen to voice recordings, which are then transcribed and annotated, before being put back into the software, in order to fill in any gaps in the way Alexa understands our speech, so that its response can be improved.

Amazon claims that it only annotates “an extremely small sample of Alexa voice recordings in order [to] improve the customer experience” and says that its employees in this area do not have access to information that would enable the person involved in the recording to be identified.

Maybe most importantly, according to Amazon, audio is not stored unless the ‘wake up’ word is used (usually ‘Alexa’) or a button is pressed.

It’s reportedly a similar story at Google, with some reviewers being able to access audio snippets from its Assistant for improvement purposes. Again, Google says that the reviewers should not be able to access information which would allow them to identify the person in the recording.

Of course, it’s not just the software created by the companies themselves which could be listening in. There are apps made by third parties available for both the Amazon Echo and Google Home.

The BBC recently reported that Security Research Labs (SRL) had built eight “smart spies” which could listen in on Amazon Echo and Google Home speaker users after the app was supposedly turned off and users had heard a “Goodbye” message. One indication that all was not well, was that the light on the smart speaker remained on, a giveaway that it was indeed still listening.

While it seems highly unlikely that smart speakers are listening to us all of the time, what SRL did highlight was the need to be aware of the apps that we use with them.

As David Emm, a security analyst at Kaspersky Lab told the BBC: “We all need to be aware of the capabilities of these devices”.