When law enforcement came knocking for the digital records of an Alexa user recently, a lot of people went into panic mode. Is that ever-handy Amazon Echo and its team of Echo Dots working against you as digital a digital spy?
Not quite. It’s true that the Echo is always listening and records your voice commands when you ask Alexa a question. And of course that information is saved to Amazon’s cloud and will be used to try and provide you with better services.
But taking some time to learn about how the Echo works, how Amazon saves your data, and how to delete it, you’ll have less trepidation that chatting with your Echo will generate an Exhibit A against you in the future.
Q: HOW DOES ALEXA WORK?
A: In short, you talk to it. Alexa is the name of the virtual assistant that powers the Amazon Echo, Echo Dot, and Amazon Tap. It’s able to answer a wide variety of questions and perform specific actions tied to your Amazon account and smart home. Additionally, you can add Alexa Skills, which are third-party apps to your Echo. This expands the amount of things you can do, like controlling your smart lights, finding news sources, and even playing games.
Q: SO ALEXA IS ALWAYS LISTENING?
A: Yes. It’s listening for the “wake word.” By default this is Alexa, but you can customize this with the Alexa app.
Q: SO DOES IT SAVE EVERYTHING I SAY?
A: No. Amazon says that Alexa only stores and remembers what you say after hearing the wake word. That is then available in your Amazon account, and can be deleted. According to Amazon, only what you say after the wake word is detected will be recorded. You’ll find from time to time your Echo may think it’s heard the wake word and the cylindrical lights will come up. However, they’ll quickly turn off once your Echo realizes that you’re not talking to it.
Q: CAN I TURN OFF THE MICROPHONE?
A: Yes. Just touch the microphone button at the top of your Echo. The lights will turn red, indicating that it’s off. Press it again to re-enable.
Q: CAN I REVIEW WHAT I'VE TOLD ALEXA?
A: Yes. To do so, you can get all the details from the Alexa app for iPhone, Android, Fire devices, or on the web. From here you can see your past interactions, which skills you’ve added to Alexa, view a shopping and to do list, and perform other tricks.
Your Alexa dashboard gives details about the questions you’ve asked Alexa.
You can see each question you’ve asked and the response that Alexa gave you. When you click More you’re able to actually listen to the recording of your voice interaction. If you put aside the creepiness about the fact that Amazon saves every one of your voice recordings, there are some more useful things to work through here.
From the home screen you’ll see a rundown of all your previous commands, along with cards of information that may indicate some answers for what you asked.
Q: SO CAN I DELETE INFORMATION?
A: Yes. Go to Settings > History. You’ll see a complete list of your previous voice interactions. On each one you can select it, hear your recording, give Amazon feedback, and of course delete it. When you give Amazon feedback, you’re able to tell Amazon if Alexa performed the action that you were expecting. If you click No, you can then send in more detailed information about why your Echo was confused and what it actually did.
If Alexa didn’t do the job, then tell Amazon about it.
Q: IS THERE A DOWNSIDE TO DELETING ALEX RECORDINGS?
A: Amazon cautions that deleting recordings may “degrade your Alexa experience.” That’s because the home screen cards tied to those recordings are gone, along with Alexa’s ability to use that information to “improve” your experience. Most likely, one-off deletions aren’t going to make that much of an impact, especially if you have an ongoing conversation with your Echo throughout the day and give it plenty of data about you.
Q: HOW DO I KEEP MY CHILDREN FROM ORDERING THINGS?
A: One of the most convenient aspects of an Alexa is that you can order items from Amazon via voice. However, you don’t want the kids stocking up with puzzles and video games when you’re not looking. To avoid this, you can require a four-digit speakable confirmation code or turn off purchasing altogether. Go to Settings > Voice Purchasing to tweak these details.
Q: SO CAN YOUR ALEXA TESTIFY AGAINST YOU?
A: It’s highly unlikely. In theory, the contents of your Amazon history could be subpoenaed as part of a criminal investigation, just like any of the information held in cloud services from Google, Apple, Microsoft, or other companies. Amazon does not state specifically how long it holds onto your voice recordings, so if there’s a concern then you may want to take more decisive action.
For example, there is a nuclear option. Go to amazon.com/myx and choose your device from the list of any hardware that is tied to your Amazon account.
You can wipe all your personal history from your Alexa device.
Keep in mind this will mean that what Alexa has learned about you is gone, so you won’t get updates in your app about your favorite basketball team or localized weather. However, with regular use you can build up that cloud-based database pretty quickly.