A User's Guide
Friend or Frenemy: How well do you know Alexa?
Alexa is the friendly voice-assistant behind Amazon's Echo speaker. She seems patient, smart, and funny. But who is she really?
Voice assistants like her are in 100 million homes at the end of 2018 and that number’s predicted to double by 2020.
From reports of her spontaneously laughing to sending a private family conversation to a random address book contact even the most tech-friendly people are finding her behaviour a little strange.
These may be mistakes or malfunctions but they make us think - what else is going on behind the scenes?
When journalists have investigated they've found communication happening between the speaker and the company at all times of day and night, even when it isn't being used by the owner.
So, who's her boss, really?
Alexa is keen to learn about you. Maybe a little too keen...
An assistant you pay for just once won't normally keep working unless there's something in it for them.
When you activate Alexa, she records you. But exactly how your information is analysed and used is kept secret. We do know she's interested in:
- how many people live with you and what their voices sound like
- when you or your family are ill
- what you eat and when you sleep
- what you're interested in
- your moods and emotions
- what you need and what you buy
She's a voice assistant, but for whom?
The patents that Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and other voice assistant companies are registering give us an idea of which direction the technology may go.
At the end of 2018, Amazon registered a patent describing how Alexa may come to recognise emotions. By knowing when you're feeling “joy, anger, sorrow, sadness, fear, disgust, boredom, stress” they describe how she'll perhaps influence you with “highly targeted audio content, such as audio advertisements or promotions.”
Alexa's parent company Amazon wants to understand your psychology so they can use it to sell more products and advertising space.
This is why some leading tech thinkers say voice assistants aren't for children, who are more vulnerable to subtle influence and can't meaningfully consent to being studied and analysed. Toy company Mattel cancelled production of their digital assistant after public concern over babies and young children being encouraged to form bonds with data-collecting devices.
What can you do? Give your assistant some time off.
Delete individual recordings
Alexa is always listening but we’re told she only records after you say the wake word. You can see the recordings she's made of you or your family in the Alexa app.
Go to Settings → Alexa Privacy to review and regularly delete items if you don't want them to be stored.
A survey of 1,000 Alexa users showed a majority of them were using Alexa for...boiling an egg. If you also use her for simple things like timing and playing music then she doesn't need to know everything about you.
In your Amazon account go to Alexa Privacy Settings → Review Voice History → Date Range → All History → Delete All Recordings for All Time.
Use the mute button
For private conversations, turn off the microphones. Mute them by pressing the button on top of the machine. Whenever this button is red, the mics are off. To reactivate, press the button again.
Protect your guilty pleasures
Ask Alexa for a recommendation and you'll get an answer based on what she already knows about you – a little bit like the friend who always tells you what she thinks you want to hear. If you want your latest cheesy movie binge to stay private then use a different service that isn't connected to Alexa. This will keep your guilty pleasures from affecting her judgement of you.
For searches, go fair-trade
Alexa loves to be right. But her robot mind doesn't understand human speech that well, so she sends a lot of your questions to real people for processing. Chances are, if you've said something to Alexa, it's been looked at by a low-paid person who is likely working in poor conditions. Just like you might avoid clothes made in factory sweat shops, you might want to ask, can I find this out without her? For internet searches, use an ethical search engine instead. Ecosia reinvests its profit into environmental projects and Duck Duck Go doesn't monitor you.
Go to www.ecosia.org or www.duckduckgo.com
Voice assistants are designed to collect information about you, so no solution will be perfect. But these simple steps can put some friendly distance between you and your smart speaker.
Try it today to get your Alexa working for you, not on you.