One of the more entertaining commercials during the Super Bowl this year was Amazon’s “Alexa can’t read your mind” campaign. In the ad, SNL star Colin Jost and his wife, Hollywood movie star Scarlett Johansson imagines what it might be like if Amazon’s Echo device “Alexa”, could read their mind. In the ad, Alexa set reminders, placed orders, and told secrets to guests that Jost and Johansson were thinking. It’s a funny ad. But many people may have seen the campaign and thought “well, it does seem possible”.
Everyone knows that those Alexa devices are always listening for their “wake word” which is “Alexa” by default. Anytime the device thinks it hears the wake word, it begins recording. When you say “Alexa, what’s the forecast”, it’ll be saved in your Amazon Alexa account along with its response. Even when you don’t actually say the wake word but something fairly close, there is a recording that is saved to your account.
Amazon employs real people who listen to many recordings saved in the cloud in an effort to improve Alexa’s understanding and responses. If you own an Alexa device you may have noticed it has gotten much better in recent years as the blue light, announcing it is listening, does not go off as frequently. I know when an Alexa ad plays on the TV, Alexa no longer records those advertisements because it knows my voice and can tell when someone else is speaking. My Alexa devices used to record when someone in the room said “I’ll ask her”. It doesn’t do that anymore.
It does still save recordings even when you don’t know she’s listening. For example, when someone in our house said “I’ll ask her” the other day, I found a snippet of that recording saved to my Amazon Alexa account.
To see what Alexa has recorded without your knowledge, open the Alexa app on a smartphone and tap the “More” button in the lower right-hand corner of the screen, then select “activity”. You’ll see all of the most recent times you’ve interacted with the device, whether that was to turn on the lights, play music or ask a question.
Tapping on “Voice History”, you’ll see a listing of each incident where Alexa recorded a conversation. The most recent recordings are shown first and you can scroll down forever to see them all. You can also choose by date. My recordings go back to 2014 when I first bought an Alexa device.
On each of those listings, you can play the recording by tapping on the down arrow and tapping the play button. Most are very brief snippets but some recordings are a couple of sentences long.
You have the option to delete all recordings. Tapping that option you’ll see a notification from Amazon that if you delete them, it could degrade your experience with the Alexa device.
Amazon has saved quite a lot of your other data as well and it is more difficult to see and delete that data.
To see it, go to your Amazon account in a browser window and scroll to the bottom, and click on “help”. Then, “security and privacy”. Under “Privacy”, you can request your saved data to download it to your computer. Amazon says it can take up to a month before the information is available for download.
Deleting that personal information is much more difficult. Amazon says to delete all of the data you must close your Amazon account