14 Facts Everyone Gets Wrong About Alexa
Is it a time-saving hero or did you just plop a cyber spy onto your kitchen counter? Learn the good, the bad, and the myths about this best-selling tech device.
According to a report from Consumer Intelligence Research Partners, smart-speaker sales hit 50 million this year and show no signs of slowing. The same study says that Amazon, which introduced its first Alexa-enabled speaker in 2014, has a market-majority share with 70 percent of sales. But as many people as there are who own an Alexa device, there are just as many who don’t fully understand what these gadgets can and can’t do. Here’s a primer on common myths surrounding the technology, and some of the cooler under-the-radar functions that Alexa offers. Check out this list of the 18 weirdest things you can buy on Amazon.
Is it a spy?
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“The Amazon products are just like any other voice-activated products: They are always listening. Not necessarily spying, but listening. They have to constantly listen in order to work properly. Alexa does keep a log and it stores it to ensure that commands and voice recognition get better.”—Chad Taylor, technology expert at Abt Electronics
It’s waiting for you to give it the word
“It does monitor everything you say and every sound, but is primarily searching for the wake word—the word that activates a response—usually ‘Alexa’ or one of the other possibilities if you have chosen to use the alternatives.”—Kevin Kelly, president of Bigbuzz Marketing Group
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Here’s what happens next
“Once the wake word is said, the device starts recording everything until it hears a pause. That audio file, called the ‘payload,’ is sent to the Amazon cloud to be processed by a natural-language-processing algorithm. Based on what you said, it will trigger certain actions, called ‘skills,’ some of which might be words for your device to say back to you, some might kick off home-automation functions like turning on a light, and still others might play a song or a video file.”—John McDonald, CEO of ClearObject
You can delete your history
“Alexa devices also collect data, like voice recordings. Amazon calls this your ‘dialogue history’ and says that this data can improve your Alexa experience. You can review or delete these recordings—either individually or in bulk—via the Alexa app.”—Ashley Boyd, vice president of advocacy, Mozilla
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It can be temporarily disabled
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“Many Amazon Alexa devices (like Echo and Echo Show) feature microphones and cameras—both of which could potentially be exploited. When you’re not using a device’s microphone or camera, you can disable it. You can generally do this through external buttons or through the device’s settings menu. If you never plan on using the camera, you might place a piece of tape over the aperture.”—Ashley Boyd
It can be an entry point for attack
“Although data collected by smart speakers is only sent to back-end servers after the wake-up word has been heard, voice assistants are always on, always listening—and therefore will always represent a significant attack surface in the home. For now, our biggest threat is on exploiting the built-in functionality of the technology. Researchers have successfully demonstrated that simple homophones can be used to activate malicious activities on Amazon’s Echo devices.”—Peter Zaborszky, founder of BestVPN.com
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Over-ordering can be an issue
“The biggest problem I think that can arise for most people is unwanted purchases. I have read stories where kids especially will order products from Amazon using the voice assistant. Make sure you turn that feature off. It will save you some time and possibly money.”—Chad Taylor
You can set it up for kids
“The Echo Dot Kids Edition is actually set up for kids. It offers lots of kid-friendly games, can read stories, comes with a case, and includes subscriptions to popular premium ‘skills’ from Disney, Nickelodeon, and others. Ultimately, it is just a beefed-up subscriptions-based Echo Dot that allows parents to have somewhat of a worry-free device thanks to the two-year warranty, the parental controls, and additional features.”—Chad Taylor
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Alexa may share your info
“People using a smart home-operating system often think of the devices as stand-alone Google accounts with an audio component, but these tools actually have a very robust feature set. An Amazon device’s operating system will contain or share access to basic information about the owner provided when registering the device, along with much of the data collected by other Amazon services such as account log-in information, media purchased through Amazon, payment credentials used for purchases, and other details. If the Amazon account has been linked to other devices such as a smartphone or other connected home devices, the speaker may also be linked to Google Drive or other storage accounts not controlled by Amazon.”—Lee Reiber, chief operating officer of Oxygen Forensics, Inc.