If you own an Amazon Echo, you probably know its strange secret. The device records a lot of what you say. Deep inside that dark tower, Echo keeps a vast trove of recordings. Your voice is preserved. Your friends’ voices are preserved. Anyone who has ever been to your house and said, “Alexa!” has contributed to its great library of human sound.
On the upside, this amazing technology puts instant information a voice command away. Most people have no idea that you can do much more than get the latest weather or listen to your favorite tunes.The downside is that Amazon stores an audio recording of every voice command you’ve issued to Alexa, not just in the device itself, but on Amazon’s servers.
Most owners feel a little weird about these voice recordings. What does Amazon plan to do with what I say? Will someone break into Alexa and hack my voice? Can law enforcement access my recordings? Is Amazon going to use these sound files for some dastardly plan?
Why Alexa stores your voice
First, let’s address why the device stores your voice in the first place. In brief, Alexa wants to obey your every command. But no matter how lifelike Alexa may be, you are still a human being talking to a machine, which has no intuition.
For the software to learn, it must adapt to your style. Alexa is designed to figure out your particular style of speaking. Some people mumble, and others have thick accents. Gradually, Echo’s technology takes this into account and gets better at understanding you.
Is Amazon Echo always listening?
The short answer is yes. Alexa is activated when it detects one of its wake words, which are “Alexa,” “Amazon,” “Computer,” or “Echo.” You’ll know that the device is ready for a command when the outer ring at the top glows blue.
According to Amazon, a fraction of a second of audio before the wake word is stored along with each recording. So if you’re having a conversation and say something like, “I love that song! Let’s listen to it. Alexa, play the Coldplay song, ‘Viva La Vida,’” then Alexa may keep the words “listen to it.”
How to listen to Alexa's recordings of you
Surprise! You can access all those recordings and listen to every command you’ve ever given since first installing the Echo in your house. Crazy, right?
I’m guessing that most people don’t realize they have this ability. But indeed, you can review your voice log with the Alexa app on iOS and Android and the app also allows you to scroll through your activity and listen to each recording.
I was surprised that some of my recordings had nothing to do with giving Alexa commands. There was me talking on my phone about my old studios that I was selling. Alexa also recorded portions of a presidential television debate. I am not sure why my real estate phone call was recorded. But one of the candidates almost said the word “Alexa.”
If you’d like to review your old recordings, pull up the Alexa app and visit the History section of the Settings menu. Tap on the entry you’d like to review in greater detail and tap the Play icon to listen to the recording. Given the hundreds or thousands of commands most Echo users accumulate, you have a chronicle of requests spoken in your actual voice.
How to delete Alexa's recordings
If the thought of your recorded requests and other things you might have said stored in a database creeps you out, you can delete them. You need to remove the associated entry of each recording on the Alexa app. Here are the steps to delete recordings:
- Open the Alexa app and go into the Settings section.
- Select History and you’ll see a list of all the entries.
- Select an entry and tap the Delete button.
But what happens if you want to delete all those recordings? Do you have to find each one and manually remove it? That could take days!
Amazon allows you to remove everything with one click. Just visit the “Manage Your Content and Devices” at www.amazon.com/mycd.
Keep in mind that Amazon warns, “deleting voice recordings may degrade your Alexa experience.”
How to stop Echo from listening
The gravity of this listening reality was brought to light in the murder trial of a man named James Bates. In February 2016, Bates was officially charged with the murder of Victor Collins. Amazon was served a warrant requesting the audio files from Bates’ Amazon Echo. But Amazon fought back.
Amazon believed complying with such a warrant could violate consumers' rights to privacy. Why then, did Amazon ultimately hand over the audio files? In an unexpected twist, Bates provided consent for the police to review the Echo’s data. Because of this abrupt change, we'll never know how Amazon would have defended themselves in their fight to protect their customers’ private data. Click here for additional details about the murder case and Amazon’s actions.
If you want to prevent Echo from listening to you, switch off Echo’s microphone. There is an on/off button on the top of the device, and whenever the button is red, the mic is off. To reactivate it, just press the button again.
Muting the mic will stop Echo from listening. However, disabling the mic will also defeat the purpose of these virtual assistants. Yes, Echo provides some pretty great sound quality, especially for a Bluetooth speaker, but you won’t be able to deliver commands.
So even if you love your Echo, allow yourself a bit of privacy. Alexa is great to have around, but sometimes, three’s a crowd.
Just for laughs, click here to see how one man turned Alexa into a talking skull.
What other secrets are your devices harboring? Be sure to listen or download my national radio show’s podcasts, or click here to find it on your local radio station. You can listen to the Kim Komando Show on your phone, tablet or computer. From buying advice to digital life issues, click here for my free podcasts.