Is Alexa safe and private

Is Alexa a spy? What Amazon's loudspeakers can hear

Digital voice assistants such as Amazon Echo or Google Home are practical: on demand, they provide answers, complete tasks and help in everyday life. But they are always on the reception. Does it have to be that way? And what happens to our data?

When it comes to voice assistants like Amazon Echo or Google Home, terms like "surveillance", "bug", "eavesdropper" - whether in conversation with friends or in forums and comment columns on the Internet. Even the comparison with George Orwell's gloomy Science fiction "1984" is not far. In it, all people are monitored by so-called "tele screens" and hidden microphones that record every private conversation. Is Alexa exactly that - total surveillance that has become a reality? Let us first ask Alexa herself:

Neither a screen nor a keyboard are required to operate voice assistants. With speakers like Amazon Echo or Google Home, the activation word "Alexa" or "Ok, Google" is sufficient. Then, on command, music, audio books, radio stations or news are played, the lights are switched on or the shopping list is managed. More and more smartphones can also be controlled by voice.

"Alexa, are you a spy?"

The mere fact that Alexa provides a relatively detailed answer to this question ("No, ...") and also sends the data protection declaration to the Alexa app for reading, shows: It is a topic that users, critics and Amazon itself drives. answers the most important questions:

Does Alexa really listen all the time and record everything?

Yes and no. Up to seven microphones are currently built into Amazon's standard speakers. The device also understands commands if they come from a few meters away or from an adjacent room. Alexa is always on the receiving end for this. According to Amazon, this does not mean that everything is recorded.

Amazon distinguishes between two different phases; passive monitoring and active recording. The company explains the process as follows: Alexa permanently waits for the activation word - depending on the setting, it listens to "Alexa", "Echo", "Amazon" or "Computer". Only then, according to Amazon, will the device switch to recording mode, send the spoken request to the cloud and provide an answer. Passive eavesdropping can also be switched off (more on this under "What can I do ...?").

In fact, measurements confirm that in eavesdropping mode only small data packets are sent to Amazon over the Internet. The device uses it to check at regular intervals whether the connection to the Internet and the Amazon servers is still up, the company said. Larger data packets are only exchanged after activation.

Two screenshots from the Alexa app with the text response of the digital assistant to the questions: Are you a spy? And: are you listening to me? (Source: Screenshot / Marc Kr├╝ger)

Do people listen to the Alexa recordings?

May be. In April 2019, Amazon confirmed a report from Bloomberg that employees around the world were listening to individual recordings, typing them up, and using them to improve speech recognition.

Amazon writes in a statement that employees have no direct access to information through which a person or an account could be identified in this process. All information would be kept strictly confidential. According to Bloomberg, however, Amazon employees see an account number, the user's first name and the device's serial number.

Do I have control over the records and data?

Yes and no. Amazon collects the recorded voice packets in the Alexa app. There, users can see, listen to, rate and delete them. The list makes it clear where the speech recognition still has weaknesses and when Alexa was activated incorrectly. This can happen, for example, when names like "Alexander" or "Alexandra" are heard within earshot. Users can actively delete these recordings and thus also train the algorithm.

As soon as the data packets have been sent, the influence of the user disappears. Because the inquiries are not processed in the device, but on Amazon's servers, which can also be located abroad. In the Alexa Terms of Use it says under point 1.3: "Alexa processes and saves your Alexa interactions, such as your voice inputs, music playlists and your Alexa to-do and shopping lists in the cloud."

With point 2.1. Amazon also transfers a large part of the responsibility to the user. It says: "If you use a third-party service, we may exchange information with this service, e.g. your postcode if you ask about the weather." When using these services, "You are responsible for all information that you provide to this third party." And further: "Amazon is not responsible or liable for the services of third parties."

What can I do to control Alexa's eavesdropping?

Users have several options for restricting the functions of Alexa - depending on the usage situation and trust.

  • Pay attention to the light ring: When the activation word is spoken, the ring begins to glow blue. When data is transmitted, the points of light move in a circle - with the Echo Show it is a light strip.
  • Activate a tone as soon as the voice transmission starts: This makes it clearer from what point in time the recording starts and data is transferred. Setting in the Alexa app via Menu -> Settings -> [device name] -> Tones -> Inquiry tones "Start of inquiry" and "End of inquiry" activate.
  • Regularly check what is being transmitted: In the Alexa app via Menu -> Settings -> History the list select. There the recordings can be listened to, assessed and deleted.
  • To temporarily switch off the microphone: All echoes have a button on the top with a microphone or circle with a line through it. This allows the microphones to be switched off, which can be recognized by the red light ring. The voice control then does not work.
  • Voice control by button: The Echo models without a screen have a button on the top with a small dot in the middle. If you keep this pressed, the assistant accepts commands directly. The activation word "Alexa" is then not needed. This also works when the microphone is switched off.
  • Pull the power plug: If you feel uncomfortable and still don't want to do without the digital assistant, you can of course switch off the power and only connect the device specifically when it is to be used. Disadvantage: It is a lot of work, takes time and makes it difficult to use Alexa spontaneously.