A lot of people seem to have this idea that bringing home a digital assistant that can talk is a lot of fun.
And perhaps it is.
After all, it is always enjoyable to have those pointless random conversations with one’s digital assistant or device.
The real craze for digital assistants and all that they have to offer began to take shape after Jeff Bezos’ Amazon officially launched the company’s own virtual/digital assistant by the name of Amazon Echo.
Of course, most of us know Amazon Echo as simply Alexa.
Alexa is always listening
We have already mentioned how it is entirely possible to have really long and random conversations with Alexa, the digital assistant that comes with all Amazon Devices.
You can ask Alexa questions such as ‘Hey Alexa, tell me about the weather’ and ‘Hey Alexa, do you have time to talk a little about my day?’
The combination of questions is fairly limitless.
So how does Alexa go about doing its thing and who is working behind Alexa?
Well, a report published by Bloomberg a while back found that Amazon employees numbering in the thousands are behind Alexa.
So what are they doing?
They are listening in to your conversations in order to improve future interactions with the company’s digital assistant.
What we mean to say is that while you are busy having that one crazy-sounding and probably ridiculously-random conversation with Amazon Alexa, you might have some Amazon employees eavesdropping on you.
We’re not saying that Amazon is doing that specifically to you.
But they are doing it to anyone and everyone who is making use of their digital assistant for various different purposes.
In all fairness though, you should see this as some kind of a shock news or anything.
Whenever you go to that store and purchase an Amazon Echo device, what you are really doing is consenting to completely share your online data with the company.
Moreover, there is no telling for how long does Amazon store your information.
Our guess is that it is probably a long time.
A lot longer than you might be comfortable with.
The simple act of cleaning all of your activities from your internet-enabled Amazon device is not going to change much.
At this point in time, machines are not able to work on their own.
Hence, whenever you have Alexa trying to answer any of your questions accurately and rather promptly, know that there is probably a human behind that answering doing at least some of the work if not the majority of the work.
Now, the simple question that arises from all of this is:
Is this privacy invasion?
Well, at the moment that does not matter.
Because no one can do anything about it even if one proves that what Amazon (along with Google and Facebook) is privacy invasion.
Amazon Echo and Alexa invade your privacy.
To block Alexa from invading your privacy you need to change your privacy settings
Amazon is probably the biggest technology company in the world right now.
So, it has people talented enough to know that other online consumers want to make use of the company’s Amazon Echo devices.
However, the company also knows that a lot of people are still staying away from their Amazon Echo devices because they are concerned about their privacy and online security.
Perhaps this is the reason why Amazon is offering people the tools that they need in order to change their privacy settings.
Once users have managed to change their privacy settings appropriately then can rest assured that Amazon Alexa is actually not recording anything on them when they are not aware of it.
Here are the steps that you need to follow in order to block Alexa from invading your online privacy.
- The first step is for the user to open up the official Alexa application on his/her smartphone device.
- Then the user should tap the button that allows him/her to enter the menu.
This button is usually located in the top left corner of the shown screen.
- When that is done, the user should select the option that says Alexa Account and then select the option that says Alexa Privacy.
- After that, the user should click the option that says Manage How Your Data Improves Amazon Alexa.
From there the user should be able to turn off the option Help Develop New Features with the appropriate button.
There is another button that the user should tap on and that is the one which appears beside the text that says Use Messages to Improve Amazon Transcriptions.
Amazon Alexa tips and tricks for better privacy.
As expected, there are many other things that Amazon Alexa users can do to make sure that Amazon Alexa is blocked from spying on them.
Here is a list of such things.
Hit mute to turn off the Amazon Alexa option Always Listen
This is really important.
Amazon Alexa users who are concerned about their device recording their private conversations and then leaking them to unknown third-party companies courtesy of nothing but Alexa should simply mute their device’s microphone.
Remember that this feature, by default, is an always-on listening feature.
As you would imagine, it is pretty frightening if you think about it.
You are there on your phone or in person with someone you trust and are having a conversation on a sensitive matter and the next thing you know is that Amazon Alexa is listening to everything that you are saying.
Hence, to safeguard against such issues, you should have no hesitancy to press the Amazon mute button which mutes the microphone and is present probably on the top portion of your Amazon device.
Press it and wait till you see some red lights.
The red light usually means that your Amazon Alexa device is now no longer able to hear what you are talking about.
Now, if for some reason you want to turn the microphone to ON again then all you do is press the button again and it should have no problems in going back to normal again.
Alexa has the ability to take care of commands that may even sound funny to other humans.
For example, you could try and ask Alexa to make some funny cat noises.
However, the simple fact that Alexa records everything that you tell it to do may just deter you from getting to friendly with given that it may come back to haunt you at a future date.
Simply put, every conversation that you have with Alexa has a chance of having consequences in the future because Amazon stores your information for a really long time.
That is a huge problem for some people.
Just imagine that a person is going through child-custody or divorce problems and it all comes to down to some Alexa recording to decide the case.
So what is the solution to all these problems?
Surprisingly, all that you have to do is to delete all of your Amazon Alexa recordings.
You already do it for your web browser by cleaning up your history and what not.
So if you can do it for the web, why can’t you do the same for Amazon Alexa as well?
In order to first listen to and then delete a given stored recording all that you have to do is to open the Settings menu and then go to the history section of the official Alexa application.
Once there you need to click the button that says Clear History.
One other thing you should know is that even if you delete your history, your recordings will remain stored on the company’s cloud servers.
You will have to remove those separately.
So get going.
Turn off all options related to Developed New Features
Since Amazon makes it abundantly clear for anyone and everyone that it does make use of actual human workers working for the company to, in reality, listen to their customer’s conversations as well as commands in order to enhance and improve the functionality of their Alexa digital assistant, the fact that you should disable all such features is a no brainer.
The process is fairly straightforward.
You do not need us to tell you that we want you to disable this option once and for all.
Before moving forward though, you should know that Amazon does say that it does not make use of all your conversations.
It randomly selects them and then uses them to improve how its digital assistant Alexa operates.
Amazon also claims that the company does all of that without ever identifying the actual user or even the user account.
We don’t know of any reason why you or anyone else should trust a technology company like Amazon.
So, the best practice is to simply take all the precautions that you can in order to protect your online privacy.
And all you really have to do in order to get rid of this feature is to turn off options such as Use Messages to Improve Transcriptions and Help Develop New Features.
Turn off Alexa
This is pretty much the easiest method to make sure Amazon Echo and Alexa are not spying on you.
And what you do is you unplug the whole of the device.
This way, you do not have to take any technical steps to improve your privacy.
So just turn your Amazon device off, sit back and have a relaxing conversation without any fear of spying.
Use a VPN
Devices from technology companies will continue to listen to our conversations.
What is not okay is if a hacker gets holds of your recordings.
So use a VPN and reroute your internet traffic via a remote VPN server in any location of your choice.
A VPN will encrypt your data and hide your online identity.
In short, a VPN is the complete privacy solution for anyone using a device like Amazon Echo or a digital assistant like Alexa.
Another unsettling thing about Alexa
Amazon wants all of its Echo devices and otherwise to show intelligence and intuitiveness.
The vast majority of online users have this tendency to forget that despite all the AI and machine learning miracles they keep reading about in the news, they are talking to nothing but a machine.
And because they forget that, they end up unknowingly giving up a ton of information that is both personal and private to Amazon Alexa.
The other thing is that when people are giving up this information to Amazon Alexa, they also do not seem to care about the fact that Alexa currently cannot work on its own.
Humans who are putting in the long hours behind the scenes are actually making Alexa what it is today.
Moreover, humans are not just listening in to the conversations that you are having with your ‘best friend’ Alexa, they are also storing all that information in the company’s database to use that information for later use.
The Bloomberg report on Alexa also gave us a number on how many Amazon employees are working at Amazon just to listen to the user conversations.
They are in the thousands.
Again, no surprises there given the scale at which Amazon works now.
The actual team of humans is not only vast in its number but also very international in its nature.
Amazon employees working on Alexa behind the scenes are located in various different countries around the globe.
Apparently, they are helping to improve the company’s digital assistant that is present on all Amazon Echo devices.
Amazon Echo devices capture voice recordings from user’s offices and homes.
Then people listen to them.
They then transcribe those voice recordings.
After that, they annotate it.
And then, they put that data through a kind of feedback loop directly into the software.
Those who don’t know, this is nothing but just a part of the overall process that companies like Amazon use in order to improve their digital assitants’understanding of how human speech works.
In this way, Amazon helps Alexa to respond better to various human commands.
Now, it is also true that Amazon Alexa supposedly lives in the cloud.
But as we have mentioned many times in this guide, humans are the ones who are currently responsible for training Amazon Alexa and hence, making Amazon Alexa more capable of not only holding a conversation with a human but also answer queries more efficiently.
However, you probably do not need us to tell you that the very thought of humans numbering in the thousands listening to a stranger’s (that is, yours) conversation with the help of Alexa features is creepy.
It is a bit like the government passing a new law regarding healthcare where people are deprived of their health facilities and businesses have to suffer punishments for employing a 50th human worker.
There are many other reasons why some people are staying away from bringing one of these Amazon devices to their homes and into their personal lives.
More problems with more private conversation recordings
Just a few months earlier, another report came out that talked about how Amazon Echo devices actually recorded private conversations of different users.
Some Amazon Echo users found out that their Amazon device had actually recorded various different things which they never told the digital assistant to record.
Such things included some really personal conversations which these Amazon Echo users did not want Alexa to hear.
The first thing privacy-minded individuals should know is that, Amazon Echo wakes up with a total of four words.
These words are as follows,
Now, the problem with these words is that these words are fairly common in regular everyday parlance.
So, it is not surprising that Amazon Echo devices automatically wake up and begin the process of listening in on various conversations that the user is having with another person at the other end of the living room.
The other problem with this situation is that, Amazon has designed its voice-activated and smart speakers to have as much intuition as possible.
That is why these Amazon Echo devices are able to pick up the words that people are using from really far away.
As mentioned just now, it does not matter if you are making use of those words to command Alexa or are just having a casual conversation with a person that you know.
These are just some of the perils of being something that is considered smart.
The other thing we would like to mention here is that Alexa also has the ability to listen in and record random user conversations to the extent that one time it landed Amazon Alexa right into the witness box.
Now, we have also seen law enforcement agencies showing intentions to make use of the data that is stored in various smart speakers in order to assist in solving various crimes.
That is despite the fact that generally speaking, it is not allowed to share user data with law enforcement agencies unless and until a specific case becomes too difficult without it.
Say hello to Alexa and its secret audio recorder.
It seems like people still have problems in understanding how do these Amazon smart speakers actually work.
And because of that lack of knowledge, they are prepared to follow whatever trend it is that they feel like following.
Of course, humans have this need of looking cool and there is nothing wrong with that.
In fact, plenty of the things that Amazon Alexa can do around the house for the user are cool.
Then there are those users who have this desire to digitize their life even more than before.
In order to do so, they make use of Microsoft’s Cortana and what not.
Some online consumers like to have random chats with other digital assistants such as Siri especially when they are bored to death because of their work.
However, the thing that no user should forget is that first and foremost all devices that offer digital assistants are actually voice-activated recording devices.
In other words, no one should dispute their capability to hold a conversation with an actual person.
But what that person should not forget is that at the end of the day, each and every word that they say is getting recorded by the same technology company that is behind the development of their digital assistant.
Our research also indicates that one of the purposes of offering such devices to end users is to allow companies to gain as much information about the user as is possible.
Technology companies can then use all of that data for activities such as advertising and analytics.
This is where we ask our readers how they would feel if they somehow knew beforehand that their house was bugged with a secret voice recorder that was listening to all their conversations.
Our intuition tells us that readers would not only feel unsettled but also unsafe.
That is a totally normal reaction that one should have if it is established that the Amazon Echo device they have at home is recording them.
We have already discussed the fact how Amazon Echo does not require much input to actually get started, wake up and listen (and then record) what the user is saying either to Amazon Echo or to another person.
The other bit is that even if Amazon Echo is unable to understand the human speech that it records, the thousands of human users that Amazon has hired can make sure that the company knows the meaning of the user’s conversation no matter how complex it is.