As It Happens

Tech columnist crafts song out of Amazon smart speaker recordings to sound privacy alarm

Amazon's voice-activated Alexa Echo devices are there to make your life easier. What many don't know, says Washington Post columnist Geoffrey Fowler, is that it's recording everything you tell it, and sending those recordings to Amazon's data servers.

Geoffrey Fowler was shocked how many recordings Amazon Echo had of him — many without the speakers' knowledge

A new Amazon Echo is displayed during a program announcing several new Amazon products by the company in Seattle in 2017. (Elaine Thompson/Associated Press)
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Transcript

Alexa wants to be your friend — and to sell you lots of stuff from Amazon.

The company's Echo smart speaker device activates when you say its name, helping you with everyday tasks such as checking the weather, playing music or connecting to Amazon's online store.

What you might not realize is that Alexa also has a very good memory. It's recording everything you tell it — and those recordings are kept on Amazon's data servers.

Washington Post columnist Geoffrey Fowler went through four years' worth of recordings gathered by his Echo, and came away shocked by how much intel the device — and Amazon — had on him.

Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off.

Geoffrey, what are some of the private moments that you've discovered your Alexa device has been recording in your home over the past four years?

It recorded a member of my family talking about medication. It recorded a friend talking about a business deal that she was closing and she didn't realize she was sitting next to a microphone. It also recorded random snippets of Downton Abbey; for some reason that seemed to set it off.

And you had, like, spaghetti timer requests and the usual things you ask Alexa to give you, right? All that was recorded as well.

That's right. From the last four years, there were thousands of these fragments of my life, kind of an unwelcome walk down memory lane, because a lot of this stuff, in the moment when it happened, I never thought that it would be recorded and stored on a tech giant servers for them or anybody else to kind of go through.

Geoffrey Fowler is a tech columnist for the Washington Post. (Geoffrey A. Fowler/Twitter)

But it wasn't just the commands you made with the prompt word, when you ask Alexa to do something. That was recorded and stored. But other things that you hadn't even prompted the device to listen and those were recorded as well. Is that right?

So those random snippets of Downton Abbey? There's no Alexa character on Downton Abbey. I found dozens of these cases where it just kind of went off on its own.

How did you find out? What access did you get to your record?

The crazy part is I didn't get any special access at all. Amazon keeps this list for anybody who uses an Alexa device. You dig around a bit, you can find your way to Alexa privacy settings and, you know, both listen to the recordings and delete them if you want to.

But why does Amazon store all this information — all these snippets of our lives?

That's the million dollar question — or maybe it's the billion dollar question — for this whole industry. You know, Amazon wants to treat this like kind of an either-or. Either we have this great functionality of artificial intelligence and voice assistance that can be at our beck and call around the house, or we can have our privacy.

But I think that's not true. For example, Amazon's arch rival in this space is Google and its assistant last year, Google Assistant, changed the way it works and it no longer keeps the recordings of our conversations. So it doesn't really have to be this way.

But is there any reason for it? I mean, would there be a purpose? Can they use the material in any way?

And when you ask Amazon, they say that this is really about artificial intelligence. They use these recordings to keep training Alexa to recognize more accents, more voices, more weird sonic situations.

But the question is, how many of these recordings do they really need to get that done? And I think they've overreached here and are storing too much.

Amazon's Echo Dot Kids Edition is aimed at children. It's a voice-controlled device powered by the Alexa digital assistant. (Amazon)

But is it your sense that Amazon employees are listening to these recordings?

So part of the way that you train artificial intelligence is you have humans tell it whether it got the thing right or wrong. So yes, Amazon has acknowledged they have humans some times who'll listen to his recordings to see if they got it right or wrong.

And in some cases we've learned, there's some reporting from Bloomberg, that they even know the geographic location of the device that did the reporting.

Now you want to illustrate how much Alexa had recorded of your life and you created a little song using her recordings, which you put to the tune of This Land Is Your Land.

Geoffrey Fowler made a song using snippets of voice recordings from his Amazon Alexa Echo smart speaker device. 0:19

OK. Musically, not going to the hit parade, but you've made your illustration here. Fart jokes? Did they record your fart jokes?

Oh indeed. I discovered, when I was going through my collection of recordings, that some house guests had been asking Alexa a lot of questions about farts.

The Numi 2.0 intelligent toilet with Amazon Alexa is on display at the Kohler booth at CES International on Jan. 9, 2019, in Las Vegas. (John Locher/Associated Press)

Aha. Anyway, what you're describing and everything, it's amusing, so it doesn't seem like it's dangerous in any way. It doesn't feel like a threat. And we know that people are willing to give up all kinds of private information to Facebook or whatever in exchange for this connectivity. So do you think that people really care?

I think people do care. I think the world has changed a lot in the last year. I think we've realized that the tradeoff that we made for Facebook turned out to really be not in our interests. And any time data is collected it can and will be used against you. And we're at danger of repeating some of those Facebook mistakes in our homes. And so that's what I think we really need to be aware of and to stop.


Written by Jonathan Ore. Q&A edited for length and clarity. Interview with Geoffrey Fowler produced by Chris Harbord.

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