Alexa IS listening to you: Former Amazon Executive reveals he switches OFF his smart speaker whenever he wants a ‘private moment’

  • BBC Panorama is investigating the rise of Amazon from bookstore to tech giant 
  • A former executive for the company says he always turns Alexa off when talking
  • Amazon says some conversations recorded by Alexa are transcribed by people
  • They say people can turn the transcription feature off and will soon be able to delete any recordings made by device 

A former Amazon Executive revealed he switches off his Alexa smart speaker whenever he wants a ‘private moment’ as he doesn’t want it listening in.

Robert Frederick, a former manager at Amazon Web Services, told BBC Panorama he always turns it off during personal and particularly sensitive conversations.

Last year Amazon was forced to admit that some conversations recorded by virtual assistant Alexa were listened to and transcribed by humans.

Amazon says human staff listen to less than on per cent of conversations to check for accuracy and the information is made anonymous before they see it.

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Amazon's Alexa is being placed in an increasing number of devices including televisions, smart speakers and screens

Amazon’s Alexa is being placed in an increasing number of devices including televisions, smart speakers and screens

The investigative journalism programme is exploring Amazon’s rise from online bookstore to tech giant as well as the way it collects data from its customers.

‘Whoever owns, collects the data, if you have access to it, and rights to data, then you are king. It’s all about the data. Everything,’ Frederick told Panorama.

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Amazon now offers an opt out of annotation and are working to give customers the ability to delete the recordings if they don’t want them held on the system.

Dave Limp, Amazon Senior VP of Devices and Services told Alexa that if you keep the recordings then the system gets better at recognising your voice.

Amazon has also come under fire for its Ring doorbells and the way it uses the data, particularly in supplying video to police forces.

Amazon spent $840 million two years ago to buy video doorbell manufacturer Ring.

The company says the doorbells ‘make it convenient to speak to and see whomever is at your front door’.

Since Amazon acquired Ring, it has donated doorbells to police forces in the UK and the US including Suffolk Constabulary who were given 1,000 of them.

They handed them out to residents in Ipswich and Det Supt Andy Smith told Panorama he was a convert to the technology.

‘I do firmly believe that utopia for me is if every resident had this or an equivalent form of technology,’ he said.

‘This has the power to eradicate, well certainly get towards that utopian position around residential based crime.’

In the US, Amazon is now using Ring cameras to create a digital neighbourhood watch scheme using an app called Neighbors where residents can share footage.

More than 900 police forces can also access the app, enabling them, with residents’ permission to have access to camera locations and footage.

Only three forces in the UK have handed out Ring cameras – Suffolk, Leicestershire and the Met – the Neighbor app isn’t available in the UK.

Dave Limp said of Amazon’s Ring doorbells, ‘It’s not marketed as a surveillance device. It’s marketed as a device that is meant to make customers lives safer.’

Speaking to Panorama, the Government’s Surveillance Camera Commissioner for England and Wales, Tony Porter warns against Amazon’s Neighbors app being introduced to the UK as it would change the ‘dynamic of surveillance’.

‘It would change to being one of more than simply community reassurance, to a state form of surveillance,’ he told Panorama.

‘This lays a foundation for a network that quite rightly and properly causes concerns for people that don’t want to live in a society that is enmeshed in surveillance.’ 

‘We could end up in a surveillance state and I don’t know anybody that wants to live in a surveillance state,’ he said.

BBC Panorama’s Amazon special is on BBC One tonight at 20:30 GMT 

WHY ARE PEOPLE CONCERNED OVER PRIVACY WITH AMAZON’S ALEXA DEVICES?

Amazon devices have previously been activated when they’re not wanted – meaning the devices could be listening.

Millions are reluctant to invite the devices and their powerful microphones into their homes out of concern that their conversations are being heard.

Amazon devices rely on microphones listening out for a key word, which can be triggered by accident and without their owner’s realisation. 

The camera on the £119.99 ($129) Echo Spot, which doubles up as a ‘smart alarm’, will also probably be facing directly at the user’s bed. 

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The device has such sophisticated microphones it can hear people talking from across the room – even if music is playing. A hack by British security researcher Mark Barnes saw 2015 and 2016 versions of the Echo turned into a live microphone.

Fraudsters could then use this live audio feed to collect sensitive information from the device.   





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