With privacy concerns mounting around the Alexa digital assistant, Amazon adds an ‘amnesia’ command — one that will delete a conversation it overheard.
This Wednesday, Amazon announced adding a new command for Alexa — “Alexa, delete everything I said today”. According to the company, it does pretty much what it says on the tin: the personal assistant will not remember a thing. It also says a command to order Alexa to delete a particular conversation — something that was just said, for example — is in the works.
A step in the right direction or a bandaid for the wrong one?
Concerns have been steadily mounting that internet-linked, microphone-equipped smart speakers can listen in on private conversations or interactions. As of writing this, typing “is Alexa” in Google returns “is Alexa spying on me” right behind “is Alexa smarter than me”, which illustrates the public interest in this topic in a pretty amusing way.
In recent months, criticism of both Amazon and other manufacturers of smart-speakers escalated, as more and more of these devices found their way to peoples’ homes. Earlier this month, a coalition of 19 consumer groups accused Amazon of illegally collecting voice recordings and other identifying information on users under 13 with its Echo Dot Kids Edition. There are also safety concerns regarding the devices.
Amazon didn’t stay deaf to these concerns (do you think Alexa snitched on us?) and wants to help consumers delete recordings of their voices from its Echo range of devices, which run Alexa. As such, it made this operation available via a simple voice command. The company previously provided tools in the Alexa app and on its website to erase those recordings. Microphones and cameras on Echo smart speakers can also be turned off, they add.
However, the can has been rattled, and smart-speakers are coming under increased scrutiny. The California State Assembly, for example, is working on a bill that would force smart-speaker manufacturers to obtain consumer consent before saving recordings of commands or conversations. Frankly, I don’t get how this wasn’t required already. Other legislators are also considering similar moves, and the Illinois Senate has recently passed a bill on the issue.
Right now, AI assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri keep recordings of everything said to them after their ‘wake’ words by default, to help better train the software. Google’s assistant (named Assistant) was recently revised to no longer record what it hears after its wake words (“Okay, Google”) by default. Many consumers complain that — although the devices aren’t supposed to record anything without first being addressed to directly — sometimes these smart-speakers accidentally turn on and record conversations it was not invited to.
Amazon said that it introduced the voice commands to allow customers easier control of their privacy. Users will be able to remove the day’s recordings by saying, “Alexa, delete everything I said today.” In the near future, the company adds, they will also implement the command “Alexa, delete what I just said” to allow customers to erase the last request they made of the device.