Does Alexa Really Listen to You? Unraveling the Truth about Listening, Data Collection, and Privacy
If you use Amazon Echo or any other device that supports Alexa (or consider using one in the future), you might get a bit worried because of numerous privacy concerns around it. Many believe that Amazon’s voice assistant spies on users, records too much data, and listens to private conversations for advertising purposes. But are those concerns reasonable? Read on to find out whether Alexa is always listening and how to prevent it.
So, is Alexa always listening to you?
If you’re looking for a short answer, then yes, Alexa is always listening to you. But that’s not as horrible as it may seem. The truth is that devices with smart speakers supporting Alexa (like Echo) practice passive listening. Technically, the voice assistant can hear everything you say. But it starts recording your voice and reacting to it only after you say a specific command (“wake”) word, like “Alexa” or “Echo.”
In other words, Alexa does listen to you all the time. But it doesn’t record all your private conversations. To be more specific, let’s figure out how Alexa works, exactly.
How Alexa works
Alexa is a smart voice assistant tool supported by Amazon Echo, Amazon Echo Dot, and other smart devices. It completes various tasks, from playing your favorite song and reading the latest news to checking on the weather and turning off the lights in your room. Alexa is activated by command words and uses keyword spotting to analyze your voice and translate it into code, finding certain patterns and phrases.
Like other similar voice assistants, including Apple’s Siri and Google’s Hey Google, Alexa is often criticized for potential privacy violations.
Now, to determine whether it’s really harmful to your privacy, let’s see what kind of data Alexa records and what happens to this information afterward.
What does Alexa record?
As mentioned, Alexa starts recording your voice when your device recognizes a specific trigger word. Once activated, it saves your request and sends it to Amazon’s cloud. There, the recording is processed to provide a proper response to your request. Amazon will also store those snippets as your Alexa voice history (more on that in a bit).
Alexa records your voice only while you’re making a request (for example, “Alexa, find the best route to the nearest restaurant”). Then it stops recording and immediately moves the snippet to a server.
But still, mistakes happen. According to a Northeastern University survey, voice assistants like Alexa and Siri tend to get triggered when you don’t actually intend to interact with them. It happens because the tool reacts to words that sound similar to the activation keyword. In fact, accidental recordings may occur up to 19 times per day.
Apart from that, Amazon may analyze your requests to Alexa for quality assurance. Here are some details.
Can Amazon monitor you through Alexa recordings?
Bloomberg reports that Amazon runs a team of analysts who collect and process data to improve the tool’s performance. In particular, these specialists have access to users’ voice recordings. They study human requests in order to understand how to optimize the assistants’ responses.
💡 Pro tip: To prevent Amazon from analyzing your audio files, take the following steps:
- Go to Alexa Privacy Settings.
- Select Manage Your Alexa Data.
- Go to the Voice Recordings section.
- Toggle off the Enable Deletion by Voice button.
OK, now you know how Alexa works and what data it saves. But is it actually bad for your privacy? Let’s clear things up.
Main Alexa privacy concerns and security risks
Internet users keep talking about all the pitfalls and dangers associated with Alexa and its somewhat questionable data collection policies. You may bump into numerous Reddit and Quora posts discussing those risks, like these:
Indeed, there are a couple of things to watch out for when using this voice assistant. Even if you don’t believe in Alexa spying theories, we recommend using it cautiously. Let’s overview the most significant privacy and security concerns to keep in mind.
Command prompt activation
An external sound (for instance, when somebody’s talking in a video) or a similar phrase may accidentally activate Alexa. The story of the Reddit user from the comments above, whose Alexa started playing a song after a construction worker said something outside, isn’t unique. Unfortunately, there’s no effective way to prevent this – except for turning Alexa off, of course.
Unauthorized access risk
Sadly, an unintentional command that activates Alexa is the most innocent item on our list. Things can get much worse if a hacker or malicious actor gains unauthorized access to your device and uses your voice assistant against you.
How is that possible? In most cases, this risk becomes real if you fall victim to a phishing attack. A hacker may send you a legit-looking email (for instance, impersonating Amazon support) containing a malicious link. Once you click on it, you will find yourself on a shady website. And if you leave your credentials there, scammers will easily access your Alexa-supported device. Then, they will be able to compromise the system and send requests to your device without you knowing.
To protect yourself from such risks, find out how to spot and avoid phishing scams here.
IoT systems’ vulnerabilities
Internet of Things (IoT) devices are designed to make our lives easier by creating smart connections between various gadgets. You may run a whole network of such devices, consisting of security cameras, household appliances, computers, phones, smart TVs, and more. Amazon’s tools like Echo are also on the list.
But while convenient, IoT systems are still vulnerable to various cyber threats. In many cases, they lack some essential security features, resulting in multiple weaknesses a hacker can exploit.
The main problem is that if a cyber-criminal manages to hack a single device, they will gain access to all the gadgets connected to the network, including your Alexa-supported device. To learn more about the risks associated with IoT devices, check out our recent blog post about Amazon’s Ring Doorbell safety issues.
Alexa’s Drop-in feature is an easy and convenient way to get in touch with other devices without making a call or sending a text. This way, you can drop in on your kid or partner effortlessly. If you use this with another device for the first time, it will require permission. But later on, it will start dropping in automatically.
The trick is that someone (for example, your ex or incredulous partner) can use Alexa’s Drop-in feature to spy on you (more on how to prevent this later on).
Data collection for advertising purposes
As mentioned, Amazon may use smart speaker recordings to improve the tool’s functionality. But is Alexa listening to conversations for ads? According to a recent arXiv study, it actually does. Researchers claim that Amazon’s ecosystem and third-party services collect data about your interactions with Alexa and share it with over 40 advertising partners.
Now, imagine how much marketers can learn about you based on your Alexa requests. Anything, from your hobbies and interests to locations you visit, websites you browse, and the actual products or services you search for – a true goldmine for targeted advertising agencies.
With all those concerns in mind, you probably wonder how to protect your privacy when using Alexa. The easiest way would be to stop using it at all. But if you’re not about to make such a drastic move, let’s consider some helpful practices to keep your personal information safe.
How to secure your Alexa device and stay private
Here are some useful tips on how to protect your private data when using Alexa.
1. Remove your voice recording history
First and foremost, remember that Amazon stores your Alexa snippets as your voice history. So, if you often interact with your device via voice assistant, it‘s a good idea to regularly remove those recordings. This way, you will make sure it doesn’t end up in the wrong hands.
Here’s how to clear your Alexa voice history:
- Head to Privacy Settings in the Alexa app on your device.
- Tap Review Voice History.
- Select the recordings you want to remove.
- Tap Delete Selected Recordings.
2. Turn off the Drop-in feature and enable Notifications
As mentioned, your ex or partner can use Alexa’s Drop-in feature to spy on you. To avoid this, turn off this function on your device. Here’s how to disable it:
- Open your Alexa app.
- Tap Devices.
- Select Echo & Alexa.
- Go to Communications.
- Tap Drop-in and turn it off or limit permissions to the chosen devices.
Also, note that when you turn off your Alexa notifications, you won’t know if somebody’s trying to drop in on you without your consent. Take the following steps to turn notifications on:
- Open the Alexa app.
- Tap the menu icon.
- Select Settings > Notifications.
- Enable the notifications you want to receive.
4. Mute your microphone
If you want to make sure that nobody can listen to you through your smart speaker, you can always turn off your microphone. For that, find the microphone button on your device (its location may vary depending on your particular gadget) and press it.
5. Protect your Wi-Fi network with a VPN
Want to add an extra security layer and take your privacy to the next level? Then, you need a powerful solution, such as a trustworthy virtual private network (VPN). It will protect your home network from unwanted monitoring and potential hacks.
A VPN masks your IP address and covers all your data with reliable encryption. It means that your online requests and browsing activities will go through a secure encrypted tunnel. As a result, even if a hacker or another third party tries to snoop on you, they won’t be able to access your data and find out what you’re up to.
Usually, a VPN is a convenient application you can install on your PC, laptop, or phone. But to protect smart home systems and all the connected devices at once, you will need to set up a VPN for a router.
Reconfigure your router settings by following our detailed instructions described here and enjoy a secure connection at all times.
Shield your data with VeePN
There are multiple VPN services out there, but not all of them are worth your trust. Instead of buying into “free” options that can actually steal your private data, try a premium paid VPN like VeePN. It’s a reputable service provider that offers solutions for all popular devices, including PCs, mobile phones, smart TVs, and routers.
Besides, VeePN offers a vast amount of privacy and security features, including the following:
- NetGuard helps avoid third-party monitoring, malware, and ads.
- Kill Switch preserves your privacy if your VPN connection is down.
- DNS and IP leak protection prevents your personal information from leakage.
- AES-256 encryption covers your traffic with the strongest encryption standard to date.
Check out VeePN’s pricing plans and try it now with a 30-day money-back guarantee! Make sure that all your information, including Alexa voice recordings, is safe and sound.
FAQ: Does Alexa Listen to You?
Yes, if you have Alexa activated on your device, it listens to your voice all the time. But it starts recording you only when you say a command word, such as “Alexa” or “Echo.” But it sometimes happens that Alexa triggers recording accidentally. Check out this article for more details.
Alexa doesn’t spy on you literally. But it collects snippets (voice recordings) and stores them on the Amazon cloud. Besides, some researchers claim that Amazon uses data gathered from users’ interactions with Alexa for targeted advertising. Read this article to learn more.
In general, Alexa doesn’t record you until it’s activated via a command word. But sometimes, the activation occurs by accident. For example, the voice assistant can misinterpret some words and start recording you even when not intended. Find out more in this article.
Yes, according to some surveys, Amazon and selected third-party services use data collected via Alexa for advertising purposes. Read this article for more information.