For many people, it is fun to bring home a talking digital assistant and have random conversations with the device. This craze began right after Amazon launched its virtual assistant called Amazon Echo, popularly known as Alexa.
How to Prevent Alexa from Listening to You
It isn’t unusual to find users having long conversations with the device, beginning from “Alexa, what is the weather like?” to “Alexa, can we talk about the bad day I had today?”
So, who exactly is behind Alexa? As a Bloomberg report found, thousands of Amazon employees. That’s right. When you’re having that ridiculous conversation with Alexa, Amazon employees might actually be eavesdropping on you.
Don’t be surprised. When you buy an Echo device, you are consenting to share the data with Amazon. And the data remains stored for a long time, even after you clean your activities from the device.
A machine can never work on its own. Therefore, when Alexa answers your questions promptly and accurately, there is always a human doing most of the work.
Does this constitute a privacy violation? It does, but remember you agreed to the terms and conditions when you bought the device.
Because the Amazon Echo devices are built to be intuitive and intelligent, most users tend to forget that they are talking to a machine and end up giving out a lot of personal information. When they do this, they also forget that Alexa is not working on her own.
There are humans who are working behind the scenes to make Alexa what she is. And these humans are always listening in to your conversations and storing it in their databases for later use.
Just how many employees are there? Thousands. That’s right. Amazon.com employs a vast number of people in several countries around the world to help improve the digital assistant behind the Echo devices.
These people listen to voice recordings captured by Echo devices in homes and offices, transcribe, annotate and feedback into the software. This is part of the process that Amazon uses to improve Alexa’s understanding of human speech and help it respond better to commands.
Although Alexa is supposed to live in the clouds, humans are responsible for training her and making her capable of answering queries and making a conversation.
But the very thought of thousands of strangers listening to your conversations with Alexa is unsettling – kind of like passing a health care law that takes people from their doctor and punishes businesses for hiring that 50th employee. That’s the reason why many people do not want to bring a talking device home.
Recording private conversations
A few months ago, there was a report about Echo devices recording private conversations of users. Echo users found that the device had recorded things that they never said to the virtual assistant. These include personal conversations that were not meant for the speaker.
The Echo wakes up at four words: Alexa, Amazon, Echo, and Computer.
The problem is, these words are so common in everyday parlance that it is not surprising for the device to wake up and start listening even when you are having a conversation with someone else at the far end of the room.
Because voice-activated smart speakers are designed to be intuitive, they can pick up their wake up words from far away, even if you are using those words randomly in an everyday conversation with someone else. The perils of being smart.
In fact, Alexa’s ability to record random conversations has also landed her in the witness box. Law enforcement now wants to use the data stored in these smart speakers to help solve crimes. Even though user data is generally not shared with law enforcement, in certain cases it is required to.
Secret voice recorder
Not many understand how these smart speakers work. Some people want to follow trends and think it would be cool to make Alexa do stuff around the house. Others want to digitize their lives by bringing home Cortana. Some even like to have random conversations with Siri when they feel bored.
But first and foremost these are voice-activated recording devices. They are capable of having a conversation with you but you must remember that each and every word of these conversations is being recorded by the parent company.
In fact, the very purpose of these devices is to send user information back to the company so that it can be used for analytics and advertising.
How would you feel if you knew there was a secret voice recorder in your house listening to your conversations? Unsafe and unsettled, right?
That’s exactly how you should feel with an Echo device at home. it doesn’t take much for the device to wake up and start listening and it will record whatever it hears. And even if it records garbled speech, the humans behind the machine can easily find out the real meaning.
Changing Privacy Settings
Amazon knows that people want to use Echo devices but the concern about privacy can make a lot of people stay away. That is why Amazon also lets people know how to change the privacy settings so that their conversations with Alexa are not recorded by the company.
- First, you have to open the Alexa app on your smartphone.
- Tap the menu button on the top left of the screen.
- Then select “Alexa Account” and choose “Alexa Privacy.”
- Under “Manage how your data improves Alexa,” you can turn off the button next to “Help Develop New Features” as well as the button next to your name under “Use Messages to Improve Transcriptions.”
Additional Tips and Tricks
There are other steps you can take in order to prevent Alexa from spying on you. Here are some of them:
Turn Off “Always Listen” – Hit Mute
If you’re that concerned about getting your private conversations leaked to unknown parties courtesy of your Alexa, you can simply mute its microphone. The always-on listening features can be pretty frightening if you’re talking about sensitive matters. Therefore, you should press the mute button (microphone) on the top of your device. When you see red lights, that means Alexa can no longer hear what you’re saying. If you want it back on, press the button again and it’ll go back to normal.
You might give Alexa some commands that could be funny like making cat noises. However, some saved recordings can haunt you in the future to come. There are consequences of having conversations stored for a long period of time especially if someone can tap into them. For example, imagine a previous recording resurfacing while going through a divorce or child-custody problems
The solution is pretty simple, “Just Delete Your Recordings”. We all clear our browsing history when we surf the web, yeah, it’s the same thing.
To listen to and delete stored recordings, open Settings > History in the Alexa app, and then clear History. Recordings will remain on the Amazon cloud until you remove them. I suggest you do that as well.
Turn Off “Develop New Features”
Amazon makes it clear that actual humans in the company to listen to our conversations and commands to improve Alexa’s functionality. Although it’s pretty straight forward, I don’t recommend keeping that on. A handful of randomly-selected conversations are used to improve how Alexa operates. They claim that they do that without identifying the user or the account, but you can’t trust anyone when it comes to the internet nowadays. It’s always best to take extra precautionary measures to ensure your privacy’s protection. All you have to do is turn off “Help Develop New Features” and “Use Messages to Improve Transcriptions”.
Unplug the Device
Probably the easiest way to avoid being spied on is to unplug the whole device. That’s it. That way, you won’t have to go to technical measures or worry about pressing something wrong. Cut the electricity off your device, sit back, and open whatever conversation you like.
Operate with a VPN
We can’t blame the device for what happens. It’s first and foremost job is to LISTEN to our commands. However, the problem lies when a hacker gets his hands on our personal data and recordings. By using a VPN, you’ll reroute your traffic through a remote server of your choosing. This will encrypt your traffic and hide your identity as long as you’re connected. You’ll be protected all the way.
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Prevent Alexa from Eavesdropping – Summing Up
Demanding convenience has a high price nowadays – our privacy. Alexa can make your daily life much easier, but at the same time, it can compromise your privacy. Be careful who you give your password to. Whoever has that can check your recordings and even change the current password. You now know how to secure your private life without having Alexa listening to everything you have to say.