Amazon Alexa’s ‘Spying’ is a Necessary Evil Users Must Embrace

Voice assistants are listening to your conversations, but it is necessary for the technology to work. 

Tech News
4 min read
Amazon Alexa’s ‘Spying’ is a Necessary Evil Users Must Embrace

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Imagine if you had to pick a scenario from the below two options:

Scenario 1: You walk into a dark room and say “Alexa, turn on the lights”. And voila! You have an illuminated room.

Scenario 2: You walk into a dark room, spend 10-15 seconds searching for the switch to turn on the light — stub your toe in the process — and then manage to switch the lights on.

Which of the two are you going to choose?

It’s a no-brainer. Any sane person would prefer scenario 1.

That’s the luxury that technology is offering you. Though, that luxury does come at a price and that price is a part of your privacy.


The Goa Director General of Police, Dr. Muktesh Chander, at a seminar on cyber security for the industry, speaking to The Indian Express said, “And what Alexa does. All the time it is listening. Everything. Every word you are saying, Alexa is listening and passing it on to Google (Chander then corrects himself and says Amazon). “What can be a bigger spy than this?”, he added.

To get more clarity around this, The Quint spoke to Dr. Muktesh Chander who told us that "these devices (smart home devices) have microphones, they are capable of listening. Don't keep them on throughout if you don't need them."

On asking him about his statement to The Indian Express, he added, "Nowhere did I say that Alexa is a spying device.”

Mr. Chander wanted to make it absolutely clear that his intention of saying this was to make people aware that smart home devices can listen to every conversation we are having.

So, should you be worried about anything said above?


Is Alexa Listening?

Let’s get one thing clear. For a voice assistant like Amazon’s Alexa to work, it has to be constantly listening to everything that’s going around it only then will it be able to respond to the commands a user prompts. There is no other way for making this technology work (unless mankind stumbles upon telepathy as an option).

But, just because Alexa is on a listening spree doesn’t mean that it is recording everything.

The following information is displayed in the Help & Feedback section of the app.
(Photo: Amazon Alexa App)
The fact that smart speakers are always listening brings up a lot of privacy concerns, there’s a risk of anybody (even your neighbour) speaking out loud to the Echo/Home, asking it to do your task.
Candid Wueest, Principal Threat Researcher, Symantec

Therefore, it is always advised you mute or switch off the voice assistant when you are not using it.


Yes, Alexa Does Record Your Data

Mr. Chander is absolutely right when he says that Alexa is recording your data. Every time a user activates an Echo device by saying the trigger word ‘Alexa’, the voice assistant records everything you say to it and stores it at the back-end.

It’s important to note that the recordings are only sent to back-end servers once the wake-up word has been heard, and they are also sent over an encrypted connection.
Candid Wueest, Principal Threat Researcher, Symantec

The device does not have the permission to record or send any data unless the user says the voice assistant’s trigger word. There must be times when an acoustic aberration might trigger Alexa whereby it starts speaking random gibberish, but that is an anomaly and happens rarely. Simply saying, two people could be talking about the Tata HEXA and Alexa might get activated out of nowhere. It has happened with many.

Still, if you’re paranoid enough, then the device lets you delete the recordings as well. That should make you feel better.


Your Voice Your Rules

Every voice assistant user has a full right over his voice data and also has the option to delete that voice data if they want.

You have to make sure that the ID with which you have logged into the voice assistant is protected by two-factor authentication.

Users have an option to delete their voice data.
(Photo: Amazon Alexa App)
All current devices provide the option to listen to previous recordings and delete them if required. This of course also means that you should protect your linked account with strong passwords and two-factor authentication (2FA) where possible, as anyone that has access to the account can listen in remotely.
How to protect you voice assistant device.
(Photo: The Quint)

In all, it would be unfair to single out Amazon’s Alexa as a culprit. The fact that it is listening to your conversations and recording data can be considered a necessary evil for the technology to work.

In the end, users have to be responsible and have to be circumspect and vigilant on how they use technology. Because, ‘they’ are listening.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Alexa   Amazon Alexa   Amazon Alexa Spying 

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