SciTech

Alexa, convenience in return for recordings of your voice

Credit: Isabelle Vincent/ Credit: Isabelle Vincent/

Voice-activated technology may be the next big hit in the tech world. With 41.4 million users for Siri and 0.2 million monthly users for Cortana, Siri and Cortana are the primary competitors of Amazon Alexa, which has 2.6 million users. As these companies compete to provide the best features in their voice technologies, users benefit from consistent improvements.

So, what is Alexa exactly and how does it work? Alexa is a voice service from Amazon that powers "smart speaker" devices like the Amazon Echo, Echo Dot, and Amazon Tap. It can be found on any Alexa enabled device that is configured with Alexa voice service, such as Amazon’s Fire TV and tablets. Alexa waits for a wake word (“Alexa” by default) to start a conversation. Once that word is spoken, Alexa begins listening to you, and then you can ask Alexa to do things for you (such as playing music) or use a skill you downloaded.

Although Siri and Cortana’s user base is declining, Alexa’s is consistently growing. Amazon continues to attract developers with high-stakes hackathons in order to add to Alexa's 15,000+ skills. Alexa's skills page is becoming as populated as the App Store, which makes it hard for developers to come up with new, unique skills. On the other hand, it is also leading to increasingly unique and helpful skills for Alexa by forcing developers to think outside the box. With more and more skills on the market, Amazon savvily adds hackathons with focused agendas and themes to guide developers towards a certain genre of skills. This year’s Hackathon tasks participants with creating an everyday-use-skill.

The big concern for many, it seems, is privacy. Is Alexa listening to us all the time? Recently, Amazon filed a patent to allow Alexa to listen to people all the time. If the technology is implemented, it will mainly be used to catch key words (like "love" or "hate") to figure out what people like or dislike and make suggestions accordingly.

Though this technology is not yet installed on Amazon's devices, Alexa does store voice recordings of what users say after the "wake word" activates the device. While Apple's Siri anonymizes users' recordings and deletes them after six months, Alexa stores them until the user chooses to delete them. This means that if a user is hacked — or much more likely, someone else gains login access to their Amazon account — their browsing behaviors and recordings can be accessed.

A couple of solutions for this are found in a USA Today article by Kim Komando. Komando suggests turning off Echo’s mic to prevent Alexa from eavesdropping, turning off voice purchasing or setting a PIN code for purchases to secure money transactions, and definitely checking “Drop-In” settings to ensure that no one else is listening to your conversations.

Amazon claims that Alexa's always-listening technology may never hit the market. "We do not use customers’ voice recordings for targeted advertising," said an Amazon spokesperson in an official statement. "Like many companies, we file a number of forward-looking patent applications that explore the full possibilities of new technology. Patents take multiple years to receive and do not necessarily reflect current developments to products and services."