Amazon Echo Alexa Is Kinda Creepy But I Still Love It
Recent News Revealed Thousands Of Employees Are Listening
Most of the regular news stream about Amazon is positive. Everything from earnings to new products, services, and how people love the brand. But all that doesn’t matter when you read that they hire employees to listen in to your Alexa interactions — that intrusion into your daily life likely freaks you out.
It freaks me out a little. I just posted on my Forbes blog about how the voice assistant Amazon’s Echo device, also known as, Alexa (also can be called Amazon, Echo, or just Computer, in a nod to Star Trek). Alexa Is Listening All The Time: Here’s How To Stop It.
That’s not 100 percent accurate; it is listening after you “wake” it with a wake word (one of the four words above). Only then is it listening. It is a random selection on Amazon’s part which recordings get analyzed. At least, that’s the official line from Amazon corporate. They have thousands of humans listening, transcribing, and uploading that data into their artificial intelligence (AI) system, to make it better.
This makes sense to me, mostly (maybe not thousands of employees, though), and there does not appear to be any foul play. It is simply evidence of a company striving to make sure its system operates at the highest, best level. Here’s why I still choose to keep my Alexa voice assistant and maintain my trust in Amazon.
1. Yes, Amazon can hear your conversation — if you didn’t know that, you didn’t read the Echo box.
Although my post about Alexa and Amazon privacy, or lack thereof, sounded a bit negative or expressed some concern, I’m still an unabashed fan and really appreciate what the Amazon Echo provides — a powerful, practical, voice assistant. I love it. I have the Google Home as well and love that. I use the Google Assistant on my phone constantly, too.
I love that I can synchronize my Google Calendar to Alexa and simply ask it to put an appointment on my calendar and it happens without typing on a keyboard or screen. I love that it can add items to my shopping list so that the whole family can see what’s needed when they are out and about town. I love that it lets me play music for free (mostly) and does a whole bunch of other “skills” as Amazon calls them — from turning on a light, ordering a Lyft or Uber ride, checking the weather, or sending text (SMS) messages, to name only a few. It is super convenient and valuable to me and to millions of others.
I do not love that Amazon is not fully transparent and as trustworthy as they claim. In an update to my Forbes post, I added that they have this employee listening improvement setting turned on by default. They should have asked me to opt-in. Will Jeff Bezos really care? Probably not and that does irk me a bit, I admit. So they lost some trust points on this one.
I don’t want empty words from corporate about a digital future being protected and trustworthy — I want serious, real, substantive action toward it. The best way to get there, in my view, is to use it and to keep them aware that I want to see positive movement. I want them to do the right thing and as a customer, I have a lot better chance of being heard than if I simply hate on them from some disconnected place, non-user place.
Of course, it is not only Amazon that has to deal with these issues. So, too, do Google, Facebook, Apple, and a host of others that have access to our data and our personal lives.
One of the reasons I will not get worked up is we have been allowing technology to fill our lives for a long time and we’re already tracked, monitored, and our information traded, sold. I do not like that, but it takes a lot to completely disconnect and I’m not convinced that would be worth it. I find that the benefits outweigh the risks. You can disagree as some readers have already let me know. But my question for you is this: Have you already opened the door and don’t realize it?
2. Have you already set sail on the open ocean (as in no privacy) and there’s no turning back?
Could Amazon and the rest do something that pushes me to completely sever the connection, throw my Echo in the trash, and start disconnecting. Sure, that could happen. But pending a full Terminator-type existence, the whole Sky Net thing, which arguably happens millimeter by millimeter and not all at once, I don’t think I’m going Luddite. I don’t feel addicted to Alexa or the Google Home. I press the microphone button and mute these machines when I want true privacy.
It is that I simply appreciate the things digital voice assistants can do and I don’t think they are spying on me. I’m not that interesting. I believe that it is only listening for the watch or wake word that starts an interaction. That the interaction might be recorded is not that significant to me because my request is not truly a private, no one can ever know, request. Why would I ask a device such a question? I cannot think of such a question. I’m mostly asking it to add corn or pasta to my shopping list or turning on a light or putting an event on my calendar. If our foreign adversaries or our own government are concerned about my behavior, I guess they can pay me a visit. I’m not too worried.
Now if it is listening when I have not engaged and just eavesdropping on my after-dinner conversation, that’s different. But even then, most of the time, I have nothing to hide. I don’t want to live in fear of what the movies have told me is our future. I don’t believe that. I believe we will make mistakes, but we will also correct for them and work together to create a place of trust and safety.
Much of this is still relatively new, so it may take more time until we have federal regulations or ACLU-like organizations that guard our privacy as an aspect of civil liberties if it comes to that (and it might). As a friend of mine said to me about someone who was deeply suspicious that his phone was being tapped — “do you really think that the government (or whomever) is that interested in what you have to say?”
3. Humans are listening to digital assistants because humans are still smarter
I guess the question I have for people who are so concerned: Actually, what are you worried about? What are you saying that would cause the government or a foreign spy to tap your phone, or break into Amazon’s employee data vault where they keep the device improvement recordings and probe into what you are saying to your spouse or next door neighbor?
Again, I have some concerns. I do not trust Facebook, but I use it a bit. I wonder if Google is selling my data from my Google Maps travels or if Apple shares some of my Siri questions. It bugs me a bit when the remarketing technology allows my search query to become an ad on another platform. But we found a solution for that, ad blocking, and we’ll find a solution for voice assistants if they eavesdrop.
If you have a smartphone, you are being tracked and you are already deeply connected (Read a great post by Jason Evangelho about Kashmir Hill’s experience disconnecting from the big four to see just how deep the rabbit hole goes — it is linked at the end of my Alexa Listening post. It has a lot of traffic to it).
You can read the full Forbes post here: Alexa Is Listening All The Time: Here’s How To Stop It. In it, I list a number of ways you can achieve greater privacy with your Amazon Echo “Alexa” device. Plus, I link to these other posts I mentioned here, at the end of that post.
Clearly, I don’t have many answers. I have switched a portion of my email to ProtonMail (super secure out of Switzerland). I’m looking at an open-source, private voice assistant built with a Raspberry Pi. I’m researching a few privacy apps that help track who is tracking you. These are part of my work at Forbes and other sites where I serve as a contract blogger, but I’m also personally interested and invested (not in a financial way).
No doubt, like you, I want options. I want protections in place of safeguards via apps or tools that keep me informed when there’s a breach. I think some are already there — it just takes a little searching and not just a little change in our behavior and expectations.
I would love to hear what apps, software, hardware, methods you use to create and maintain privacy. I would love to know what’s a fair trade-off if a trade-off is ever fair or good. I’m just not willing to hate on all these guys and toss out my Echo, my smartphone, my Fitbit, or whatever device seems most suspicious this week. I believe we will get to better privacy and increased data safety and transparency requirements on these companies in the near future.
Until then, Alexa, please order me some pizza.