Despite the rapid adoption of Alexa and other voice assistants—a rate now exceeding that of smartphones in the prime of their rise—privacy concerns persist among consumers. As we grow more wary of the ways in which tech and media companies use our personal data, the influx of always-listening microphones only fuels that skepticism. Many prospective users hold an unfounded fear that Amazon may spy on them by way of their Echo devices, or that those devices can be hacked by nefarious third parties for wiretapping.
Acutely aware of these concerns and their implications for Alexa’s success, Amazon takes extensive, explicit steps to ensure user privacy. Here’s the lowdown.
Alexa retains no audio without your wake word.
On the bulk of Alexa-enabled devices, including the full Echo family, Alexa is, indeed, always listening—but only for your configured wake word. The state is better described as “passive listening,” in which the device is continuously recording and overwriting about one second of ambient sound until that segment contains your wake word. Without that trigger, no information is stored or transmitted—anywhere.
On Amazon’s Echo devices, the primary processor remains inactive until activated by your wake word. During “passive listening,” the devices are powered only by a small firmware chip containing less than 1MB of memory and just enough processing capacity to monitor for your wake word.
Those conspiracy theories about Alexa tailoring responses from your everyday conversations? Invalid.
Your wake word triggers audio recording, which Alexa uses in two ways.
Upon hearing the designated wake word, your Alexa device begins recording your command. On Echo devices, illuminated LED lights clearly indicate this listening state.
Alexa submits the recording for processing.
The recorded command is sent to Amazon’s voice service platform, which recognizes the language and generates a request in a text-based format. That converted request—not your recorded audio—may query Amazon or a third-party skill, depending on the needs of the command. The response to that request is then delivered to your device and presented to you appropriately.
Amazon stores the recording for your reference.
You can access your recorded commands in the Alexa app in History under Settings, which affords you numerous benefits. Most notably, when Alexa misinterprets a command, you can see what she thought you said and report the error to Amazon, thus improving the technology.
Amazon never accesses your recordings, for any reason, and you’re able to clear your history at any time within History.
To resolve errors and advance Alexa’s development, Amazon does collect and utilize anonymous data, including trends in the types of requests made by users and, of course, those reported errors. Those data are untied to individual users or accounts.
Drop In contacts can instantly connect to your Echo device.
The Drop In feature for Echo devices works much like an intercom system, where a user can use one device to speak through, and receive audio from, another. Both fun and useful, the feature should be utilized carefully, as it grants any permitted contact the ability to hear audio within range of your device without an “answer.” On Echo devices with video capabilities, Drop In also activates the camera and initiates a video feed.
By default, Drop In is deactivated on Echo devices. Once configured with the registration of Calling and Messaging, devices within the same household can Drop In on one another, but external devices must be granted access individually via Contacts—and those contacts must also grant you access.
View approved Drop In contacts.
To see which contacts you’ve approved for Drop In:
- Select the Messaging icon on the home screen.
- Tap the Contacts icon at the top-right.
- Choose yourself.
- See your approved contacts under People Who Can Drop In.
Of course, you can also view and modify the Drop In permissions of each contact by selecting them individually.
Control device-specific Drop In settings.
For individual Echo devices you can:
- opt for full Drop In functionality;
- limit Drop In functionality to your household; or
- disable Drop In functionality entirely.
To make your selection:
- Select Settings within the main menu.
- Select your device.
- Under General, choose Drop In.
- Choose your desired setting.
You can also disable Drop In functionality temporarily once or on a schedule under Do Not Disturb within the devices settings.
You can always mute your Echo device.
Should it put you at ease at any particularly sensitive moment, you can disable the microphone on your Echo device by pressing the mute button, marked by either a strike-through microphone or circle, depending on your device.