Over the past few years, more and more voice-controlled virtual assistants started finding places for themselves, moving from store shelves to people’s homes. In fact, last year Amazon revealed that over 100 million Alexa-powered devices such as Echo speakers and wearables, just to name a few, have been sold to customers worldwide since Alexa was introduced and it took just one more year to more than double that number (Rubin, 2020).

Introducing Alexa
Alexa is a cloud-based voice service that understands speech and carries out commands to customer interactions. It does so through several components, such as speech recognition, language understanding and response. Some responses are provided by third party services through “skills”, who are responsible for the skills’ behavior. With over 100,000 skills that eases a person’s life, Alexa seems to be great in rolling out the commands (Priest, Dyson and Martin, 2020). Some of these skills are:

  • Ordering food.
  • Playing music.
  • Provide sports updates.
  • Reading out Alexa owners’ calendar for the day.
source: www.wired.com

Every action has a reaction
Now that we understand how Alexa can ease someone’s life, it is time to shed light into the dark side of Alexa. Microphones within Alexa are set to “always on” to listen for its wake word before recording, while Amazon’s employees listen to conversations. But why are they listening? According to a Bloomberg report, thousands of Amazon employees transcribed and annotated the recordings and then fed the captured data into Artificial Intelligence (AI) to enhance Alexas’ voice recognition and responses to commands (Walker, 2019). This is not the only privacy and confidentiality concern for Alexa. In Portland, a woman discovered that her Echo device sent private recordings to one of her husband’s employees. Once Amazon was confronted, they said that Echo was woken up due to a wake word in the background which resulted in sending the recording to a name mentioned within the conversation (Wolfson, 2018).

source: https://www.businesstoday.in/

How can Amazon fix these issues?
While I understand that Alexa is a new product that needs continuous learning and development to serve users accurately, I believe Amazon should start filling its data sharing and privacy loopholes to protect Alexas’ users privacy by rolling out one or more of the below solutions:

1- Employees to get the list of keywords used in a conversation in an encrypted format. They can then update the cloud with these words to roll out the suitable commands based on scenarios.

2- Alexa to go on hibernation mode with microphone off, 60–90 seconds after the task is completed, to ensure privacy.

3- Alexa to ask users to confirm with a customized word (tailored by that user) before sending out any conversation or making major tasks, such as sending emails or making purchases.

Otherwise, with data being handled in such ways, the question every person will ask before considering a purchase of any voice service virtual assistant would be “is it worth giving up my privacy?”.

References:

Alexa Confidentiality and Data Handling Overview, vol. 2, 20 Dec. 2019, www.d1.awsstatic.com/whitepapers/White%20Paper-Alexa%20Confidentiality%20and%20Data%20Handling%20Overview%20Dec%202019.pdf

Kinsella, Bret. “Amazon Alexa Has 100k Skills But Momentum Slows Globally. Here Is the Breakdown by Country.” Voicebot.ai, 1 Oct. 2019, www.voicebot.ai/2019/10/01/amazon-alexa-has-100k-skills-but-momentum-slows-globally-here-is-the-breakdown-by-country/

Priest, David, et al. “Every Alexa Command You Can Give Your Amazon Echo Smart Speaker.” CNET, CNET, 2 Apr. 2020, www.cnet.com/news/cyber-monday-2020-deals-35-google-home-80-echo-show-2-pack-449-hp-laptop-179-chromebook-and-more/.

Rubin, Ben Fox. “Amazon’s Alexa World Just Got Much Bigger.” CNET, CNET, 6 Jan. 2020, www.cnet.com/news/amazon-sees-alexa-devices-more-than-double-in-just-one-year/

Walker, Russell. Alexa: A Pandora’s Box of Risks, 14 May 2019, pp. 1–15.

Wolfson, Sam. “Amazon’s Alexa Recorded Private Conversation and Sent It to Random Contact.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 24 May 2018, www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/may/24/amazon-alexa-recorded-conversation