Was the Washington Post unfair on Amazon’s Alexa?

Lots of discussion online today about whether Geoffrey Fowler’s column, headlined Alexa Has Been Eavesdropping On You This Whole Time, was unnecessary fear-mongering.

If you’re pushed for time, the short answer is: no, absolutely not.

The longer answer is marginally more complicated. But only marginally.

Here’s Fowler’s argument:

Many smart-speaker owners don’t realize it, but Amazon keeps a copy of everything Alexa records after it hears its name. Apple’s Siri, and until recently Google’s Assistant, by default also keep recordings to help train their artificial intelligences.

So come with me on an unwelcome walk down memory lane. I listened to four years of my Alexa archive and found thousands of fragments of my life: spaghetti-timer requests, joking houseguests and random snippets of “Downton Abbey.” There were even sensitive conversations that somehow triggered Alexa’s “wake word” to start recording, including my family discussing medication and a friend conducting a business deal.

This is one of those icky stories that splits techies and “normies” and places them in vastly opposing places.

The techie will say: of course Alexa listens to what it said after it thinks you have said the “wake word”. That’s literally how it works.

The normie will say: But Amazon shouldn’t capture and save what I say unless I really meant to say it to Alexa. And, even if it was intentional, why must it keep that recording after it’s done its job?

Everyone is right. It’s reasonable to argue that this is how this technology works: other than a physical button, which isn’t ideal, we don’t yet have a better way to engage with voice assistants. It’s not a secret. Furthermore, companies need to keep this data in order to train these systems.

But it’s also correct to say, and report, that the vast majority of users don’t know the full extent of how audio is saved and stored by Amazon, Google, Apple and friends — and this is not acceptable.

Fowler goes on to examine a multitude of other ways smart homes are tracking us, under the blanket and inadequate explanation of “using it to improve our service”:

When I’m up for a midnight snack, Google knows. My Nest thermostat, made by Google, reports back to its servers’ data in 15-minute increments about not only the climate in my house but also whether there’s anyone moving around (as determined by a presence sensor used to trigger the heat). You can delete your account, but otherwise Nest saves it indefinitely.

Then there are lights, which can reveal what time you go to bed and do almost anything else. My Philips Hue-connected lights track every time they’re switched on and off — data the company keeps forever if you connect to its cloud service (which is required to operate them with Alexa or Assistant).

Every kind of appliance now is becoming a data-collection device. My Chamberlain MyQ garage opener lets the company keep — again, indefinitely — a record of every time my door opens or closes. My Sonos speakers, by default, track what albums, playlists or stations I’ve listened to, and when I press play, pause, skip or pump up the volume. At least they hold on to my sonic history for only six months.

So, was Fowler unfair on Amazon? Give me a break.

The headline obviously leans heavily on the popular but unfounded theory that Amazon (and others) use the microphones to proactively spy on users to sell advertising.

But that’s fine… because the headline is accurate. These devices do eavesdrop, and reporters should be banging this drum as loudly and as often as they can.