A look at how Amazon Echo listens, what it stores
Can Amazon’s Echo speaker really be a witness to a murder?
Authorities investigating the death of an Arkansas man found floating face-up in a hot tub believe that Amazon might have some evidence. Details are scant. Here’s what’s known:
HOW ECHO WORKS
Echo is designed to be the hub of the smart home . The software that powers it, Alexa, is constantly listening for commands such as a request to turn on the lights or play music, or questions such as what the weather’s like. Though it’s possible to do many of these tasks using a smartphone app, issuing a voice command keeps your hands free.
IS IT SNOOPING?
No, according to Amazon. Although Alexa is always listening, Amazon says Alexa ignores what’s said until you trigger it with the “wake word” Alexa (you can change the wake word to Amazon or Echo). Only then does the Echo pass on the command or question to Amazon’s servers for processing. A blue light on the Echo comes on to let you know that’s happening.
WHAT AMAZON KNOWS
Commands and questions preceded by the wake word do go to Amazon. Those voice snippets and transcripts, along with Alexa’s responses, are stored on Amazon’s servers. You can delete any or all such recordings through Amazon’s Alexa app, though you lose some of the personalization that comes from Alexa knowing your past requests.
IS ALEXA ALONE?
All voice assistants – including Google’s Assistant, Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana – communicate with company servers to process requests.
They differ in what they do from there, though. Apple, for instance, insists that any communications are tied to a random identifier, not your Apple ID or anything personally identifiable. Google, on the other hand, ties everything to your account – the company says it can offer a better, more personalized experience that way. In that sense, Google’s new Home speaker is much like Echo.