A recent privacy study from Cornell University reveals that Amazon Alexa, the virtual assistant found in smart speakers, collects user data for targeted advertising both on and off its platform. This practice has raised concerns about privacy violations. The study also highlights that Amazon’s and third-party skills’ operational practices are often not transparent in their privacy policies.
Amazon Alexa is designed to respond to voice commands and is present in various Amazon devices, offering a wide range of functionalities, including controlling smart devices, providing information, and playing music.
While Amazon claims that Alexa only records when activated by its wake word (“Alexa”), research has shown that it can sometimes activate accidentally, leading to unintended recordings. Amazon employees listen to and transcribe these recordings, raising concerns about privacy.
Amazon links interactions with Alexa to user accounts, using this data for targeted advertising. Advertisers pay a premium for this information, making it highly valuable. Although Amazon allows users to delete their recordings, compliance with this feature has been questioned.
Additionally, third-party “skills” on Alexa can access user data, and many developers abuse Amazon’s privacy policies by collecting voice data and sharing it with third parties without proper oversight.
The recent FTC fine against Amazon highlights its failure to delete certain data, including voice recordings, after users requested their removal, violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).
While Amazon Alexa offers convenience, it comes at the cost of privacy. Users looking for more privacy-friendly alternatives can consider Apple’s Siri, which offers stronger privacy protection. For those interested in open-source options, Mycroft provides a natural language voice assistant with an emphasis on privacy, but note that the company may be shutting down soon.