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There are plenty of scare stories about Echo devices listening to everything you say and do. Some believe the company has uberbytes of customer data, including your Tuesday-night “lasagne or spag bol” debate, saved for posterity. But is the Amazon Echo listening all the time?
The simple answer is yes and no. Yes, it’s listening but no it’s not sending all that voice data back to HQ. Here, we explain what we know – and what we can’t be so sure about.
The scientific answer
This debate has been rumbling on for some time, and way back in June 2017 a site called IOT Tests checked what data the Echo sent back to base.
The graph below shows a few seconds of quiet followed by what happened when they asked Alexa a question (after about eight seconds). The data was sent (the first peak), a brief period of rumination, and then answered (the second peak at around 10 seconds).
They stayed quiet for around 15 seconds and then asked another question. Again, you can see the distinctive twin peaks. Then they continued a conversation without saying “Alexa”. As can be seen, no further data was sent.
Is this definitive proof that Alexa never eavesdrops? No. But it’s a strong indication of how Echo devices work in practice.
The Amazon answer
The rumours about Echo’s eavesdropping were fuelled by an isolated case of actual eavesdropping in the US. However, Amazon swiftly dealt with the case, explaining why it probably happened. It has since doubled-down on its assertion that Alexa is only interested in commands.
Its Echo FAQ page explicitly says that it only sends information to the cloud when it hears the command word. “When [Echo] devices detect the wake word, they stream audio to the Cloud, including a fraction of a second of audio before the wake word.” That certainly bears out the data we see above.
In addition, a spokesperson has gone on record to say: “We take privacy seriously and have built multiple layers of privacy into our Echo devices. We do not use customers’ voice recordings for targeted advertising.”
The business answer
Now let’s look at it from a business point of view. If you were Amazon, what business reasons would you have to secretly record customer conversations? The risk to reward ratio is awful: sure, you might pick up on trends, but you’re putting your whole company’s reputation at risk.
We just can’t see it.
The post-Snowden answer
Before Edward Snowden, it seemed crazy to think the government had a giant listening machine on the lookout for keywords. We now live in less innocent times.
So, is there a chance that the US government is working with Amazon to target certain suspects? Yes, that seems possible if unlikely (again, not a great PR story if it gets out).
A more likely scenario is that people accidentally make their Echo devices vulnerable. For example, malevolent forces could sneak their Alexa skill onto your Echo by mimicking a popular skill: CSO Online demonstrated this by creating a “Capital Won” skill, which could be installed rather than Capital One. Be careful what you’re putting onto your Echo…
The future answer
Just because Amazon isn’t listening now, doesn’t mean it won’t in the future. It has already filed for a patent that covers always-on listening, with the idea that it could improve product recommendations. If that doesn’t send a shiver down your spine, nothing will.
You can always see what the Echo has heard by heading to the Alexa app on your phone. If you happen to see some things you don’t want it to keep, it’s easy to expunge them from the record – just follow The Big Tech Question‘s in-depth guide. Note, though, that this could affect the quality of Echo’s voice recognition.