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It’s Not just Alexa that’s been Listening to You

Amazon Alexa

For those of us with an Alexa device, it’s been a game changer. She’s become an everyday part of our lives and has made our everyday living that much easier. You can simply ask her what the weather is without ever checking your phone’s weather app and if you want to catch up on Game of Thrones, Alexa amazon is more than happy to turn your TV on for you. She can even launch a number of apps on your smart TV or gaming system if she’s been given access to it. Long gone now are the days where we’d have to dig around for our remotes in order to manually turn the TV on, check the weather, and launch video games. In other words, Alexa us like having your own electronic server who never backtalks to you and does what’s asked for the most part.

Of course, this isn’t all Alexa is limited to doing. She can set reminders, create shopping lists, order products off Amazon, answer basic questions such as “what is or who is”, and direct you to Google pages for more information. Alexa can also remember birthdays and you can even play a number of games with her to help keep yourself entertained while you’re fixing dinner. She also allows you to keep in touch with family and friends by allowing you to call and chat with them via her system. And if both parties have the Alexa Echo, they can even see each other.

However, Alexa isn’t without her faults. Sometimes, she simply can’t understand what you’re asking of her. For example, we really enjoy watching gamers stream on Twitch. Every time we ask Alexa to launch Twitch, she seems incapable of doing so. She gets confused and either states that there are multiple apps by that name or that she can’t find it. Alexa also isn’t limited to one person’s voice so if you’re watching, say Vinc3ntvega on Twitch, he can talk to your Alexa and she’ll respond. And then of course there are times when Alexa wants attention and will simply start talking or spouting random stuff. In the case of the aforementioned Twitch streamer, she’s recited Bible verses, spoken phrases in German, and given weather reports of cities around the world for no reason. 

Speaking for a live audience 

Alexa speaking for live audience

For those that had sneaking suspicions, Amazon’s Alexa isn’t the only one listening to you. A news report recently revealed that Amazon employees are also listening in to your conversations with Alexa. It really wasn’t that big of a surprise that people learned that Amazon employees were privy to Alexa recordings. After all, Bloomberg led to the discovery that people’s cell phones were listening in on their conversations.

“Many people don’t trust their devices after that Bloomberg report and for good reason. It’s also the same reason why people have become so frustrated with Facebook and Google; they’re using your information against you. They’re selling it to the highest bidder, all of it. And then using this information to target ads closely related to your searches and conversations as well as learn your patterns and behaviors. Phone companies insist that they’re not eavesdropping, but we know that they are. Advertisements and products that match our conversations will start appearing more frequently; even if we haven’t spoken to anyone on the phone about them.

It’s listening even when it’s off,” say reports. “And it’s not even just that they’re using this to market things to us, they’re listening to private, intimate conversations on the phone and recording them. Why? For what purpose? They keep telling us it’s to make sure we’re ‘safe’ and to protect us from terrorists, but is it really?”

Why are they listening? 

She is listening

While the reasoning behind cell phone call monitoring was a bit more heinous and obnoxious, Amazon employees maintain that there’s no hidden agenda to create ads tailored to our searches/conversations or watch out for sketchy conversations. Instead, they’re listening in an effort to improve Alexa’s capabilities for speech recognition.

The employees back at Amazon HQ are listening to the conversations we’re having with Alexa, which is sketch in and of itself. The last thing we want is for an employee to hear us calling Alexa stupid or telling her to shut up when she can’t execute a command properly. However, like we stated earlier Amazon insists it’s to keep Alexa up to par. 

“We want to make sure that Alexa is performing up to our standards. By listening to these conversations, we’re able to check whether or not the systems are hearing and thus responding correctly to commands. Whenever Alexa fails to do a task or ‘doesn’t understand something’, that gets logged. These conversations help us locate weak points and flaws within Alexa’s design so that we can continue to improve her functions and capabilities,” Amazon said. 

Many however were still suspicious. If our phones are listening to us even when we’re not on them, isn’t it possible for Alexa to do the same? And if our conversations are leading to specific products being marketed to us, in theory couldn’t Alexa do the same? Amazon acknowledges that while it’s possible, it’s nothing something they’re doing. “Alexa doesn’t listen in on conversations unless she’s spoken to. We don’t actively listen to the device unless she’s queued in. And even then, we’re only checking to make sure she’s doing as she’s asked. So, if you’re ordering products via our website through Alexa, all that we’re checking for is to make sure she was able to find the item, add it to your cart, and complete the process. We’re not interested in what you’re ordering nor are we are interested in marketing similar products to you; we’re listening just to insure Alexa is up to par,” Amazon stated. 

Can you opt out?

monitor your conversations

Unfortunately, you can’t opt out of allowing Amazon employees to monitor your conversations with Alexa. And for those who are curious how permission was even given in the first place, Amazon maintains that it’s in the fine print associated with the device. Once you purchase your Alexa and go through the process of setting her up, you’re also giving her permission to listen to your conversations. Well, you’re giving Amazon employees permission to listen to your conversations. 

Of course, so many of us are quick to just skim over the fine print. Who really wants to sit there and read 40+ pages of boring print that’s super small and tedious? Not us! And companies like Amazon as well as many others know this and take advantage of it. Many reports suggest that a lot of the fine print isn’t even useful or related to your product; it’s just filler designed to bore you and lure you into skimming through it. If you remember our article on your health information being sold to the highest bidder via trusted health apps, then you’re familiar with this concept. 

If you are one of those who check all of the fine print, which props to you honestly, then you might have stumbled across the section. However, you cannot use Alexa unless you give her permission to listen. “It’s ridiculous that in order for me to even use the device I have to give it my permission to listen in,” say many disgruntled users. “There’s no opting out of it. If you want the convenience of Alexa, then you have to pay for it by letting their employees listen to your conversations with the device.” 

Unfortunately, this just appears to be the way technology is going. 

Alexa! Call the cops

Alexa calling

Despite the fact that employees are only listening when Alexa is activated, they have heard some things that they shouldn’t have. After all anyone with an Alexa device knows that she sometimes just acts on her own accord. “We’ll be sitting on the couch watching TV when all of a sudden Alexa will come on and just say something random or say ‘sorry, I don’t know that.’ I always look at my husband in confusion and we just laugh before going back to our TV show. We joke that she’s possessed,” said one user.  

This has led people to question Alexa’s confidentiality. If she’s being triggered randomly, then there’s no telling what kind of information Amazon employees have been privy to. Many are worried that even if she’s only listening when she’s activated, that Amazon is still hearing things that aren’t supposed to. Many worry that this includes bank information, full names, and other private details of an individual’s life. 

Amazon has come forward to say yes, they have come across this information. “Unfortunately, Alexa sometimes has a mind of her own and she lets us listen to conversations we really shouldn’t be hearing. Sometimes we’ve heard individuals give their banking information and other sensitive details. This is always flagged as critical data. This means that we go to great lengths to protect the information that has been stumbled upon. We don’t release it anywhere and it’s quickly removed from our system for safety reasons. We want Alexa users to feel confident and comfortable using their devices; we’re not spying on you or trying to collect personal information,” Amazon said. 

Amazon employees have also occasionally heard other things that they really shouldn’t have. Some admit to the fact that they’ve heard people having sex. “That’s something we quickly turn off,” said one of the employees. “Once it’s activated and we learn, which is quick, that this isn’t something that’s helpful to improving Alexa’s capabilities we shut it down.” Others have said that they’ve heard people cursing their video games, breaking things, and even children mocking their parents after they’ve gotten in trouble. “A lot of it is really innocuous and sometimes funny. The most common thing that we hear when Alexa is accidentally triggered is, ‘Alexa shut the f*ck up!’”

However, it’s not all fun and games for those on the other side. At one point, Alexa was triggered whether by voice or by accident and an employee heard what they described as a sexual assault taking place. “Screams and other noises could be heard in the background, it definitely wasn’t fake. It was serious,” reports regarding the incident say. Allegedly, the employee went to higher-ups within the company with the information. They were then told that they were not allowed to intervene. 

And honestly, that bothers us way more than the notion of employees listening in our conversations whether the device is activated or not. We’d much rather have ads targeted to us than think that someone on the other end wouldn’t do what they could in a serious situation like that. 

Trust your technology to listen to you 

trust your technology

As much as we’ve come to not only love but depend on our devices, there’s always that thought in the back of our minds that technology really can’t be trusted. We’re always suspicious about everything we do; are our phones listening to us? Is the bank selling my information? Should I really be talking about this product in the same room as my devices? How safe am I with my technology? Of course, we’ve all learned by now that our devices can’t in fact be trusted. Even your searches conducted via incognito mode are saved, stored, and handed out. 

Regardless of what companies say or promise, you should always assume that your devices are listening to you, your searches are being saved, monitored and sold, and any information you put out there is also at risk of being sold to the highest bidder.

With convenience and technology comes people that listen in our conversations. Whether they’re doing so to improve the functions of the devices or to sell stuff to us or even sell our identities, technology is definitely not to be trusted. 

What are your thoughts?

Are you surprised to learn that Amazon is listening in via Alexa? We also want to know whether or not you believe that the only time Amazon is listening is when Alexa is activated. Do you believe them that it’s only to improve the device’s capabilities or do you think they’re sharing your information as well? How do you feel about the fact that an employee heard a crime being committed and was advised against alerting the authorities? Also, if you have an Alexa share with us some of the funniest/weirdest moments that have ever happened. We look forward to hearing from you!

Vimal Lalani is senior correspondent for Ishli, Medical and Wellness unit, reporting breaking news and health consumer reporting on Ishli.com.

Written by Vimal Lalani

Vimal Lalani is senior correspondent for Ishli, Medical and Wellness unit, reporting breaking news and health consumer reporting on Ishli.com.

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