In a surprise buried in its Echo Show 5 announcement, Amazon said users of all its voice-enabled devices will be able to use verbal commands to delete Alexa’s recordings.
Users will have the option to specify at least two periods of time: “everything I said today” and “what I just said.” However, according to the Alexa section of Amazon’s new privacy hub, users must first enable this delete-by-voice functionality.
Users can also delete history from any smart home devices connected to Alexa, but it appears they have to do it manually, within the privacy hub.
Amazon says Alexa and Echo devices are “built to protect your privacy” and “provide transparency and control.” The company has also long stressed Alexa is not constantly eavesdropping and users must first rouse their devices with a wake word before recordings begin and requests are sent to the cloud.
At the same time, reports of rogue recordings—and recordings going rogue—are not uncommon. Even Geoffrey Fowler, the technology columnist for the Washington Post, was surprised when he listened to a portion of his Alexa archive and found “dozens of times” when Alexa recorded without a “legitimate prompt,” including “sensitive conversations … [like] my family discussing medication and a friend conducting a business deal.”
This follows the Bloomberg report that Amazon employs thousands of people who listen to recordings from its voice-enabled devices “to eliminate gaps in Alexa’s understanding of human speech and help it better respond to commands.”
The ability to simply ask Amazon’s assistant to delete its recordings is certainly easier than the status quo, but it still leaves the onus on consumers to protect their own privacy—and to repeatedly request deletion, day in and day out.
Or, as Fowler put it prior to the update: “The product’s design clearly isn’t meeting our needs. You can manually delete past recordings if you know exactly where to look and remember to keep going back. You cannot stop Amazon from making these recordings, aside from muting the Echo’s microphone (defeating its main purpose) or unplugging the darned thing.”