Alexa, Witness To A Murder? Yes. But No, Alexa’s STILL Not Spying On You.
The internet’s all aflutter with the news: Alexa, the digital assistant inside Amazon’s Echo, Dot and Tap, witness to a murder? Yes, it’s true. But pay no attention to those hysterical, pearl-clutching headlines and conspiracy theorist comment threads: if anything, the reports on this should only reassure you Alexa is not spying on you.
Read Those Reports Closely: They’ve Buried The Lede
Reassuring reports stating that consumers have nothing to worry about don’t tend to drive a lot of internet traffic, so it’s not surprising that all the stories about this incident open with hair-raising headlines intended to get Alexa device owners to click through in a panic, as quickly as possible.
Yes, it’s true that police in Bentonville Arkansas are investigating a murder in a home where an Echo was present. It’s also true that the police have asked Amazon to turn over records of the device’s recordings and activity records, and that Amazon has refused. Add to this the fact that the police then confiscated the device, and say they were able to extract “information” from it.
Yet the news is still all good in the neighborhood for Alexa device owners, and I’ll tell you why.
1. USA Today’s piece about the incident includes two extremely pertinent (and reassuring) bits of information—but 16 paragraphs in, after many will have stopped reading in a mad rush to get home and unplug their Alexa devices:
It’s important to note that “always listening” doesn’t mean “always recording.” The Echo is actually only always listening for its “wake word”…
The Echo only keeps fewer than 60 seconds of recorded sound in its storage buffer. As new sound is recorded, the old is erased. So there’s no audio record made of what went on in a room where an Echo sits.
2. As reported in the same article, the reason Amazon gave for refusing to hand over the data the Echo had sent to the cloud for processing offers further proof that Amazon values its customers’ privacy greatly:
In a statement to USA TODAY, Amazon said [it] will not release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on it. Amazon objects to over broad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course, the company said.
So Why Did The Cops Confiscate the Echo and Extract Its Data?
Because it can still tell them some potentially useful things. If someone was making requests of the Echo, that places the person in the same room as the Echo at a specific time, for example.
But Doesn’t Amazon Keep A Record Of Requests In The Cloud?
Yes, they do. A separate record is maintained for each Alexa device and is kept private to Amazon’s servers, but you can delete that history at any time in the Alexa app. Click here to view Amazon’s help topic about how to view, play back, and erase history for an Alexa device (Amazon UK customers, click here).
I don’t recommend erasing history though, because it’s partly how Alexa gets better at understanding your specific wording and pronunciation. Erasing history is like starting all over again from day one, in terms of Alexa correctly interpreting your requests. If Alexa rarely misunderstands, then it’s probably okay to delete the history. But if Alexa has gotten noticeably better at responding correctly over time, best to leave it be.
But I Was Talking About A Product When Alexa Was Off, And The Product Started Showing Up In Amazon Ads On Websites I Visited! Doesn’t That Prove Alexa Was Spying On Me?
I hear this one from time to time, and there’s a perfectly logical, simple explanation that has nothing to do with Alexa.
When you’re interested enough in a given product or service to be talking about it in your home, chances are about 99% that you’re also browsing it online: looking at listings on e-commerce sites, checking out review sites, doing internet searches about it, looking at examples of it on Pinterest and Instagram, or something similar.
Amazon belongs to just about every online ad and marketing service out there, and consumers automatically opt in for the data gathering that powers such services when they install browser software, sign up for online access to various services and accounts, or accept the terms on various social media and online news or entertainment sites. So you do all this online investigating of some product or service, news of your browsing gets back to Amazon, and Amazon (helpfully?) starts serving you ads for that very product or service across all the sites where its ads appear. Doesn’t sound so spooky now, does it?
Click here to read a Digital Media Mom post I wrote about how to find out what data gathering services you’re already opted in for (probably without knowing it), and how to opt out of them. But be warned: it becomes a game of whack-a-mole pretty quickly, since every acceptance of a given site’s terms of service tends to reinstate the data gathering by default.
The boring, but comforting truth is that when someone who’s already very sensitive to, and suspicious about, privacy issues experiences something that could either be a coincidence or the hint of a pattern, that person is primed to assume a pattern. From there, it’s not far from, “Hey, that’s an ad for the exact laptop I’ve been researching!” to, “Hey, Alexa’s spying on me and Amazon’s lying to me!”
So relax: Alexa is NOT spying on you.
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April L. Hamilton is the Digital Media Mom. She's also the founder and Editor in Chief of LoveMyEcho.com. She writes books, articles and code, shops at the Jedi Knight level, and is making the transition to an all digital-media household. She's always on the lookout for tech that saves money and solves problems for regular people, and has a thing or two to say about all kinds of entertainment media. That's what this site is all about.