Hey Alexa, Are You Listening?

With programmes like Black Mirror and The Great Hack on our TV, is it any wonder that we have grown accustomed to being afraid of new technology, such as Amazon’s Alexa? 

Ever since Forbes released their article on the matter earlier this year, it is no secret that Alexas are always listening to their owner, even when their wake word hasn’t been said. And not only this, but it isn’t only Alexa who is listening when you call her name, it is potentially an Amazon worker too. Reportedly, these workers are hired to listen to conversations to help improve Alexa’s language and understanding of human speech. Although owners can opt-out of this in their privacy settings, this isn’t explicitly stated anywhere.

So, knowing all of this, the question is: do we care if Alexa is listening to us?

At the end of the day, we are aware that Alexa is listening to us; that’s her job, right? But at what point do we start to get worried? Alexa can hear the things we ask of her on a daily basis, such as to play a specific genre of music, or to search the web for something of interest to you, and if this data is combined with all of our other Amazon based searches, it is scary how much this device, and Amazon, could know about us. 

With all this information it creates predictions about us that can be eerily precise. When Christopher Wylie whistle blew on Cambridge Analytica in 2018, he revealed that our choices of music and clothing are a good indicator of what a person’s political belief is going to be, and according to a University of Chicago study, it can tell our race, gender, and education with an accuracy of up to 90% similarly. This could help Amazon alter our search engines and let them know which marketing emails to send out to us. With all this information being potentially gathered through Alexa’s, the possibility for owners of the device to become manipulated is worrying. 

The scary thing is that we shouldn’t only be cautious of what Alexa is hearing when we are directly talking to her, but what she is hearing when we’re not aware. Several Amazon workers who are supposedly hired to listen through Alexa, and help her adapt, have stated that they think that they have heard sexual assaults taking place in the recordings they are given but are not allowed to do anything about it. Not only does this seem like a huge invasion of privacy, but it also seems extremely immoral to hear such an act taking place, and not being able to intervene. There are many other accounts of circumstances like this, and it, again, raises the question of whether we should care or not if Alexa is listening to us. 

On the surface, Alexa looks innocent and not harmful at all, but after digging deeper, it appears that we should actually care if Alexa is listening to us, and we should even be cautious about what information she is hearing when we are allowing her to. Alexa isn’t just listening to us on the surface, she is gathering information about us that could go much deeper. So, should we care if she is listening to us? Probably. Given all this information, my advice would be to be careful about what you say around your Alexa, whether she’s switched on or not.

Lucy Barber