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Is Amazon's Alexa safe?

Audrey Conklin

Amazon's Echo device is safe for most people to use, although some professionals who work with confidential material recommend turning it off when working from home.

Some Echo owners have expressed concern about the smart home device, also known by the name Alexa, being unsafe in regard to privacy. These privacy concerns come from the device's tendency to pick up on words that may sound like prompts but aren't.

For instance, anyone in proximity to an Echo device can say, "Alexa," to prompt the device to turn on, but it can misinterpret other words and phrases as the name Alexa said in conversation rather than directly to the device. One example might be "a Lexus," although a reporter at tech website CNET said her device was triggered by the phrase "the last time."

Once an Echo device is turned on, the device continues to pick up on words spoken in close proximity to it. This is cause for concern for some people who are worried that their devices could be accidentally listening in on confidential conversations.

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As business technology website ZDNet contributor Christ Matyszczyk put it: "Imagine ... you're a lawyer dealing with a very important case involving dirty money, local politicians, a power utility and three former contestants on The Bachelor."

"At some point, you utter the word 'congresswoman.' Unbeknownst to you, that may be the moment that Alexa starts to record. ... Research I mentioned above found that 'congresswoman' was one of the words that made Alexa think she was being summoned. ... Imagine the possible result when Alexa records the details of this call and it mysteriously becomes a New York Post-level scandal: 'Bachelor contestants and local pols conned Edison out of $50 million,' " he explained.

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Amazon introduced new updates to Alexa in March 2019 after a group of child protection and advocacy groups filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission that alleged the e-commerce giant’s Echo Dot Kids, a voice-controlled computing device with parental controls, violates certain children’s privacy protection policies.

Similar to the company’s other devices, the Echo Dot is activated with a command word, but this specific device is geared toward children, making it subject to different privacy regulations. The groups said children’s conversations are recorded and stored in the cloud until deleted by parents. Even then, parents were allegedly unable to delete some, or all, of the recordings.

After the complaint was filed, Amazon rolled out new privacy protections for its Alexa-enabled devices, including protections that made it easier to delete voice recordings across all products featuring Alexa

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Amazon's website recommends turning off Alexa devices when no one is home and enabling a lock screen or thumb-print protection on the Alexa app if users want to ensure security.

An alternative to turning off an Echo device, however, is enabling "Alexa Guard," a feature that notifies users of "the sound of smoke alarms, carbon monoxide alarms or glass breaking" when they are away from home. Users can replay a suspicious noise on their Alexa apps to determine if the sound is cause for concern. In this sense, Alex is not only a safe device but improved overall home safety.

Nearly 70 percent of all U.S. home smart-speaker owners use Alexa, and market research company eMarketer expects the United  States to have at least 83.1 million smart-speaker owners by the end of 2020, according to tech website Tech Crunch.

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