This week I read a story of everything I said to Alexa, and it felt like you were an old read diary. Until I remembered that the things I told Alexa privately are stored on an Amazon server and might have been read by an Amazon employee. That's all it takes to make Alexa better, the company says. However, for many people, it is not immediately obvious that people who interact with their seemingly private voice commands are different from surveillance. Alexa, these people say, is a spy hiding in a listening device.
The debate over whether Alexa or any language assistant is spying on us is years old at this time and does not go away. Data protection lawyers have filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) alleging that these devices violate the Federal Wiretap Act. Journalists have examined the dangers of always-on microphones and artificially intelligent speech assistants. Skeptical tech bloggers like myself have argued that these things are more powerful than the people who were overloaded with data breaches. Recent news on Amazon staff's review of certain Alexa commands suggests that the situation is worse than we thought.
It feels like Alexa and other voice assistants are spying on us because the system works that way. These systems rely on machine learning and artificial intelligence to improve over time. The new technology that underpins them is currently prone to error, and even if they were perfect, the data-hungry companies that built them are constantly thinking of new ways to bring users profit. And where incomplete technology and powerful corporations collide, the government often struggles so much with understanding what's going on, that regulation seems an impossible solution.
The situation is not completely bad. This technology could be really cool if we pay more attention to the event. Which is pretty complicated.
A fundamental problem with Alexa or other language assistants is that technology tends to fail. Devices like the Echo are equipped with permanently active microphones, which should only record when they want to hear. While some devices may require pressing a physical button to stop Alexa, many are designed to record you after you say the wake-up word. Anyone who has worked with Alexa for a long time knows that it does not always work that way. Sometimes the software hears a random noise, says it is the wake-up word and starts recording.
The moment I read my story of the Alexa Commands on the Amazon website, it became clear to what extent false positives are a problem. Most entries are boring: "Hey Alexa". "Show me an omelette recipe." "What's happening?". But among the everyday dribbles was a terrifying series of messages that said, "Text not available – audio was not intended for Alexa." Every time I saw it, I saw it twice and read it aloud in my head: "Audio was not intended for Alexa." These are the things that Alexa has heard that it should not have heard, commands that were sent to the servers sent by Amazon and sent back because the machine had decided that the wake-up word was not Alexa recorded audio when the user did not issue a command, in other words, it's a bug.