Hey Alexa, Are You Listening?

Written By: Adena Chen

The first thing I say every morning is, “Alexa, what’s the weather like today?” Homes, today, are commonly equipped with voice assistant smart devices. Many buyers purchased these devices to make their lives easier with the myriad of tools that are provided. In early 2019, Amazon revealed that they had sold over 100 million devices with their notorious built-in voice assistance named “Alexa.”[1] This means that Alexa devices are listening to over 100 million voices in order to collect data and adapt to their unique users.

What Are Buyers Sacrificing in Exchange for All the Conveniences that Alexa Devices Provide?

“The fact is that your Echo, Dot, or Show, is always eavesdropping.”[2] This does not mean that the device is always recording.[3] Alexa waits for a wake word, which is usually “Alexa,” before the device begins recording.[4] Once Alexa hears the wake word, this activates the device to record the user’s command to be sent to Amazon’s cloud computers so that a correct response may be given.[5] However, the Alexa device is not perfect. Many users have reported Alexa responding without a wake word or responding when a word similar to the wake word was spoken.[6] The result of this flaw is the recording of conversations or parts of conversations without the user’s consent. In 2018, an Amazon Echo sent a recording of a couple’s private conversation to someone in their contacts without their knowledge.[7] Although the couple’s private conversation was not scandalous, they felt that this was an invasion of their privacy and immediately removed all Amazon devices from their home.[8]

Can Users Delete the Data Collected by Alexa Devices?

Users can now delete all of Alexa’s recordings with a simple voice command: “Alexa delete everything I said today.”[9] Amazon lets users delete their voice recordings, but the company keeps transcripts of the voice recordings; these transcripts are then stored on the company’s cloud servers where users cannot delete them.[10] Amazon has stated that they erase transcripts from Alexa’s main system and are working on removing it from other areas.[11]

Amazon is collecting user data through their Alexa devices and there is no way for the user to truly know that their voice recordings have been erased. The question that users are presented with today is whether they trust Amazon to hold that data when the users themselves don’t even fully know what their devices are recording. The legality of this issue is playing out in the courts where a class action suit has been filed against Amazon for the recording of all persons who lived in a home with an operating Alexa device, which they didn’t set up.[12] This is just one of many pending lawsuits questioning the legality of Amazon’s Alexa’s recording features.[13]


[1] Dieter Bohn, Amazon Says 100 Million Alexa Devices Have Been Sold—What’s Next?, Verge (Jan. 4, 2019, 4:00 P.M.), https://www.theverge.com/2019/1/4/18168565/amazon-alexa-devices-how-many-sold-number-100-million-dave-limp [https://perma.cc/WM98-APVF].

[2] Grant Clauser, Amazon’s Alexa Never Stops Listening to You. Should You Worry?, N.Y. Times Wirecutter (Aug. 8, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/wirecutter/blog/amazons-alexa-never-stops-listening-to-you/ [https://perma.cc/9Y2U-9UB3].

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Geoffrey A. Fowler, Alexa Has Been Eavesdropping on You This Whole Time, Wash. Post (Mar. 6, 2019, 6:00 A.M.), https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2019/05/06/alexa-has-been-eavesdropping-you-this-whole-time/ [https://perma.cc/6NVE-2HNN].

[7] Laurel Wamsley, Amazon Echo Recorded and Sent Couple’s Conversation—All Without Their Knowledge, National Public Radio (May 25, 2018, 3:16 P.M.), https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/05/25/614470096/amazon-echo-recorded-and-sent-couples-conversation-all-without-their-knowledge [https://perma.cc/7SWH-4GM6].

[8] Id.

[9] Jacob Kastrenakes, Amazon Now Lets You Tell Alexa to Delete Your Voice Recordings, Verge (May 29, 2019, 9:11 A.M.), https://www.theverge.com/2019/5/29/18644027/amazon-alexa-delete-voice-recordings-command-privacy-hub [https://perma.cc/6YLJ-73F5].

[10] Alfred Ng, Amazon Alexa Transcripts Live On, Even After You Delete Voice Records, CNet (May 9, 2019, 7:40 A.M.), https://www.cnet.com/news/amazon-alexa-transcripts-live-on-even-after-you-delete-voice-records/ [https://perma.cc/5YPA-T7JT].

[11] Id.

[12] Jim Siams, Federal Lawsuit Charges Amazon’s Alexa Violates Children’s Privacy, Claims J. (June 17, 2019), https://www.claimsjournal.com/news/national/2019/06/17/291497.htm [https://perma.cc/6A8P-CGRR].

[13] Id.


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