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Relax: Your Amazon Echo Isn’t Recording Everything You Say

Variety logo Variety 12/27/2016 Janko Roettgers
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The recent news about police requesting Amazon Echo voice recordings as evidence in a murder investigation has many people wondering how much the voice-controlled speaker is actually recording, and whether the device may have recorded their private conversations in the past. The short answer is no — with a few caveats.

Police in Bentonville, Ark. recently issued a warrant for Amazon to provide them with voice recordings, transcripts and other information captured by one of the company’s Echo speakers, The Information reported Tuesday. Investigators wanted to use that information to make their case against a murder suspect who allegedly strangled a companion a year ago.

Most Echo owners will hopefully never find themselves in a similar situation — but the case still shines a light on the capabilities of voice-controlled speakers and their privacy implications.

First things first: No, the Echo isn’t recording every word you say, and it also isn’t sending a constant audio stream of everything that’s going on in your home to Amazon’s servers. Not only would this be a privacy nightmare, it would also result in way too much data for Amazon to handle or make sense of. Amazon wouldn’t be able to target you better if it tried to generate buying recommendations based on every joke you crack, — it would be overwhelmed by all the random conversations.

Instead, the Echo is using so-called hot words. Like someone looking to spot a familiar car in bypassing traffic without looking closely at all the other cars, it’s simply monitoring all audio for the keyword “Alexa.” Only upon hearing this magic word does it start to record audio for the few seconds it would take to make a request, and then send it to Amazon’s servers. That’s why it’s unlikely that the Echo in the Bentonville murder case would have recorded the entire crime.

So why are police nonetheless interested in those recordings? One theory is that investigators simply hope to get lucky. On occasion, an Alexa speaker thinks it has heard someone utter ‘Alexa,” even though no one did. At other times, someone on the radio may actually say the word, and prompt the speaker to start recording.

In theory, this could have resulted in the Echo recording a key moment of the crime — but chances that this actually happened are extremely low. In fact, Echo owners can check themselves how many times their devices has recorded them inadvertently, and whether any of those moments contain anything meaningful. Amazon’s Alexa smart phone app lists all recent voice requests, complete with the ability to play the original audio file.

(If you happen to find something embarrassing, you can always delete that individual recording through the app as well, or delete all of Amazon’s recordings of you via its website. It’s also possible to turn off the microphone manually.)

However, police in Bentonville likely didn’t only care about what people said that night. What the device was used for may be just as important to investigators. From The Information:

“Detectives noticed (the defendant’s) Echo in his kitchen while searching the home. They learned the music was being streamed wirelessly during the night, which they said could have been “activated and controlled” using the Echo, detectives said in an affidavit for the Amazon search warrant.”

Simply knowing who asked the device to play music at what time may help to reconstruct that fateful night, similar to the way police uses cell phone records to place suspects at a certain location during a certain time. The home also had a smart water meter, which may have recorded water usage used to wash away evidence of the crime.

Of course, all of this doesn’t mean that one couldn’t theoretically use the Echo to spy on people. One could for example envision a hacking attack on the device, aimed at hijacking it to send constant streams of audio to a third party. That’s technically possible — but it’s just as likely that this happens with any of the other devices in your home.

Amazon released a statement to Engadget about whether it will turn over info in the case, saying, “Amazon will not release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us. Amazon objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course.”

These days, we are all surrounded by microphones. Chances are, you’re facing one while reading this article. Your phone, your laptop and your iPad all have microphones, and cameras as well, which could conceivably all be triggered to spy on you. In fact, this has happened with computer cameras, with hackers recording videos of people without their knowledge, as we learned from the film “Snowden.”

Compared to that, the things you say in your kitchen may be relatively harmless.

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