Is Alexa spying on me?
By Harold Glicken
More than 3 million Amazon Echos have been sold; I got mine as a Father's Day gift. The $180 device is about 9.5 inches tall, 3.2 inches at the round base, and weighs a bit more than 2 pounds.
It works on my home’s wireless network, and can be plugged in anywhere. It can hear me from adjacent rooms just fine. After a very easy set up (on an Apple, Fire OS or Android device), it knows where I live and tailors answers – in lightning speed – for my location.
If I need to know where the closest pizza joint is, I summon Alexa, the clear voice of the Echo, with “Alexa, where’s the nearest pizza restaurant?” I know Alexa – whose voice is natural, and doesn’t sound as if it’s computer generated -- is listening because a blue light shines on the top of the Echo. Alexa responds in seconds, “The nearest pizza restaurant is ...” She’ll give me the name of the restaurant, its address and phone number and tell me if it’s open.
I threw it a curve by asking her about the weather in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. She not only gives me the current temperature, but adds the forecast for the day, including high and low temperatures. For no good reason I’m also concerned that Saskatoon may be in store for a heat wave, so I ask for the forecast for two days out.
Relieved that the weather will remain moderate, I ask Alexa to find me a book I’d like to read, but I want someone to read it for me. Alexa finds the book, hooks me up with the Amazon bookstore, puts the charge on my account, and the book comes alive. I also could summon Alexa to order. something for me on the Amazon website.
I like to hear classical music when I work, so when I discovered the vast free music library that comes as part of my Prime account, I created playlists online from my PC, gave the playlists names and asked Alexa to play them. The music sounds remarkably good, too – the Echo has a 2.5-inch woofer and a 2-inch tweeter.
When I want to turn on a light that’s controlled by my Insteon smart home hub, I simply summon Alexa and ask her to turn on my dining room light or any other device that it can connect to, including thermostats. It’s almost as easy, but far more fun, than tapping the light switch.
I’ve only scratched the surface of what Alexa can do. But there’s one concern, and it’s not that the futuristic film I saw some 60 years ago – in the frostiest years of the Cold War – didn’t realistically portray what a device like Alexa can do. At the risk of being a killjoy, what concerns me is this: Is the Echo listening to more than my commands? Are my private conversations and commands being transmitted to a massive database in the cloud, and entered into my personal file, there to be analyzed by government snoops? So I asked Alexa if she is spying on me.
“I only send audio back to Amazon when I hear the wake word. For more information, see the privacy notice.”
Still, I ask Alexa not to spy on me.
“I’m sorry,” she says, “but I can’t find the answer to the question I heard.”
Neither can I.