In January 2020, it was estimated that 1 in 4 US adults owns a smart speaker of some kind. These speakers do much more than amplify: they are more like virtual assistants, helping you create a grocery list, organize your calendar, and even learn new information. And the most popular of all is Amazon Alexa. Not only does Alexa help you set timers and find music to help you fall asleep, but through data collection, she can anticipate your needs, offering suggestions for tasks or things to buy. But while some might find this fascinating or impressive, others find themselves unnerved by just how smart Alexa is.
The truth is, very few people mind that Alexa collects data from them. It can even make things more convenient as Alexa learns their preferences. What’s concerning to most Americans is how Alexa collects data. We think of our homes as a private place, a place where we can feel safe. The idea of a smart device listening in on our conversations can seem like an invasion of that privacy. That’s why it’s important to know how exactly Alexa collects data, and what experts have to say on the matter.
What Data Does Alexa Harvest?
Part of the reason this conversation surrounds Alexa is because Alexa collects more data about users than any other smart assistant. The point of this data collection is to be able to recognize user profiles, accurately set reminders of events, and understand the preferences of the user. Some of the data that Alexa harvests is very basic, while others dig deeper, including:
- Name and age
- Time zone
- Address and phone number
- Payment information
- Personal interests stored in your user profile
- Personal description stored in your user profile
- Your IP address and the location of your computer or device
- Acoustic model of voice characteristics
It makes sense how Alexa might be able to use all of that data. It can even help to improve your user experience if Alexa already has your preferences and information stored, so she can anticipate your needs as well as remember them. But for many, the concern is how Alexa harvests that data…and how that might be used. Safety and privacy are major concerns when it comes to data. The idea of a machine in our homes listening into our conversations certainly seems an unnerving one.
Does Your Alexa Eavesdrop?
Understandably, this is a common question from Amazon customers. It could even make or break the decision to buy a smart home device for some. According to Amazon’s official response, the answer is no, Alexa does not eavesdrop:
“By default, Echo devices are designed to detect only your chosen wake word (Alexa, Amazon, Computer or Echo). The device detects the wake word by identifying acoustic patterns that match the wake word. No audio is stored or sent to the cloud unless the device detects the wake word (or Alexa is activated by pressing a button).”
However, that answer might seem a bit incomplete. Sure, no audio is stored or sent to the cloud unless Alexa detects the wake word, but the device must be listening in order to detect the wake word in the first place, right? According to Alphr, that’s a good thing to keep in mind.
“To get things straight right away, the Amazon Echo is listening to you. Always. When plugged in, the Echo is listening and waiting for you to say the wake word and activate it. When in passive mode (before it detects the wake word), the Echo only monitors the environment. On the other hand, when it picks up the wake word, it starts recording. Once the conversation ends, the Echo uploads it to the cloud.”
So, the full answer is more complicated. Alexa is listening, but only passively. Your information is not stored or sent to the cloud unless you use the wake word. There’s also a feature called a “drop-in” which allows other Alexa users to hear and see you through your device, but this feature is only used with your permission, can be limited to family and friends, or can be disabled completely.
For smart home device users who aren’t comfortable with even passive listening, one option is to turn off your device’s microphone. This will stop Alexa from listening in, but you will have to turn the microphone back on the next time you need her, which may defeat the convenience for some.
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