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Is Your Alexa Listening To You?

Is Alexa listening to people?

Alexa, the intelligent, cloud-based AI home assistant, provides us with helpful answers and can, in theory, make our lives a bit easier. When past films like 2001: A Space Odyssey or, more recently, Ex Machina, shared visions of futuristic, intelligent AI, they often took a dark turn. Quietly, we might wonder about Alexa becoming malevolent, too.

Many of us who own an Alexa can share at least one creepy story of the device’s ostensible eavesdropping. From another room, a creepy robotic laugh peels after you’ve told a joke. In the midst of a heated conversation with a loved one, Alexa pops on to respond to a question you’ve asked.

Although there may be reasonable explanations for these horror film setups, these experiences beg the question: Is your Alexa listening to you?

The history of Alexa

Jeff Bezos first had the inspiration for an entirely voice-controlled AI assistant back in 2011. His vision for Alexa included a cloud-based AI that could undergo constant upgrades without any action from the user. 

Bezos remained hands-on in the development process, partnered with the Polish start-up tech firm, Ivona, and by 2014, Amazon’s voice-computing technology, Alexa, debuted on the market.

Although Apple had already released Siri, the voice-activated AI assistant for iPhone users, Alexa would become the first stand-alone AI assistant available to Internet users from all walks of life. 

Alexa didn’t just end up in the homes of millionaires and tech savvy professionals — your parents, or even grandparents, might have an Alexa set up in their kitchen or living room, too.

How can Alexa help you?

The benefits of Alexa

Amazon ensured it developed and marketed Alexa as a technology tool for the everyman. The set-up isn’t overly complicated, and the knowledge the AI contains and can look up for you can prove extremely useful.

As more people of all generations transition to smart homes and easier living accommodations, Alexa helps make the process seamless. Some of the benefits of using an Alexa include:   

  • Time-saving efficiency: You can ask Alexa questions without interrupting your activities. Sure, you can look up the weather on your smartphone, but you’d have to stop what you’re doing and look at a screen. You can ask Alexa what the weather is, or where to make hotel reservations, as you’re jumping in the shower or preparing a meal.
  • Interconnection of your smart devices: Alexa can work in conjunction with all Amazon Echo devices, and smart devices such as lamps, sound bars, and thermostats. You can ask Alexa to turn on your heat, turn off your smart lights, or lower the volume of your TV.
  • Make phone calls: You can call loved ones who also have an Alexa device, and use your Alexa as a speakerphone. If you need to keep your cell phone free, but want to catch up on that phone call you promised your mom, Alexa provides a way.
  • Breaking news alerts: You can set Alexa to alert you to any breaking news. This saves you from having the constant background noise of cable news channels, and keeps you from remaining glued to your phone screen.
  • Fitness accountability: Although your Alexa can’t work out for you, it can help you to choose your best fitness routine option. Alexa can help guide you and suggest fitness goals.

Alexa had many early critics

When Alexa was first unveiled, people found its function confusing, and the AI had many detractors. Interestingly, cybersecurity risks  weren’t among the alarm bells sounded by critics. 

Instead, according to CNBC, critics doubted its abilities. Richard Windsor, an analyst from Edison Investment Research, found Alexa “far too stupid” to engage in conversation with a user or fully comprehend voice commands. 

Although the AI has its limitations, stupidity is no longer the chief concern among most Alexa users. Many people wonder if Alexa listens to us far beyond our voice commands.

Is Alexa spying on you?

Could Alexa secretly work as a covert operative? The answer is a bit murky. However, Alexa is always listening. The AI is supposed to activate its listening features only upon command, but the one thing the old robot doomsday movies have right is that AI doesn’t always follow the rules. 

However, Alexa isn’t nefarious — if you’re close enough for its microphone to pick up and record what you’re saying, it may process your words as a command, even when it shouldn’t.  

Alexa’s listening gone awry  

Alexa forms its answers and information given based on its users. In other words, any smart device equipped with Alexa, learns to recognize your usage habits and your voice. This feature allows Alexa to become more efficient and allows it to customize its answers to best fit the specific needs of its users.  

Nevertheless, Alexa’s listening can lead the AI to cross the ethical line. For example, in 2021, when a young girl was stuck inside due to bad weather, she began practicing physical challenges with her mom. 

The girl’s Echo suggested she shove a penny into a live outlet, based on a TikTok challenge Alexa found when searching the Internet. Although the girl didn’t follow through with Alexa’s challenge, she could have been seriously injured, or worse.

In another incident, Alexa sent over 170,000 recordings to the wrong recipient. Not only were these messages unwanted, but it represents a significant breach of privacy and cybersecurity

Alexa and cybersecurity risks

So, what do Alexa’s listening habits mean for your cybersecurity? Everything you’ve ever asked Alexa is recorded and stored by Amazon. Ostensibly, this is to help the tool improve. 

However, if that information were to fall into the hands of bad actors, it could lead to hacker cyberattacks, exposure to malware, identity theft, and a multitude of other personal and corporate data breaches.

Things to avoid when you own an Alexa

How to reduce Alexa’s risk to your cybersecurity  

If you proceed with caution, Alexa can prove to be a great, time-saving and informative tool. Nonetheless, it’s vital that you learn how to protect your personal, sensitive information and reduce your cybersecurity risk while using this AI tool.

Yes, your Alexa is listening to you, but you don’t have to allow it to hear everything you say. Some of the ways to reduce Alexa’s risk to your cybersecurity include:

  • Avoid placing an Echo device in your home office or other areas where you may be apt to share sensitive information
  • Use a strong password and a pin for voice-activated purchases
  • Regularly ask Alexa to delete your voice recordings
  • Manually clear your Alexa’s history by going to Settings > Alexa Account > History
  • Turn Alexa’s microphone off when you aren’t using it. This will disable Alexa’s voice recording feature 
  • Disable Alexa’s camera by turning it off or covering it

Alexa is here to stay, and the evolution of AI technology continues to rapidly evolve. When used wisely, AI can enhance our daily lives and open up new worlds of opportunity. Remember to protect your privacy when you’re online, and these tools can be exciting gifts.

Check out the cybersecurity tools offered by What Is My IP Address, and be sure to read our blog for the latest in cybersecurity insights, tips, and trends.

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