Only a programmed “wake word” — either “Alexa,” “Amazon,” “Computer,” or “Echo” — is supposed to activate Amazon’s voice-enabled Alexa devices. But sometimes, when someone says words with similar sounds, the speaker can be accidentally turned on and will record conversations. Previously, users were able to listen to everything Alexa captures, including accidental recordings, through their Amazon account. However, recently the Alexa app stopped giving them access to those snippets.
The owners told BuzzFeed News that in the voice interactions history section of the Alexa app, the recordings appeared as “Text not available. Click to play recording.” After clicking, however, the play button was grayed out and they couldn’t select it. The app displayed “Audio was not intended for your Echo—nothing was returned” below the play button. After testing this ourselves, BuzzFeed News found at least a dozen instances where accidental triggers could not be played back.
After BuzzFeed News reported the issue to Amazon, a spokesperson said, “This is a bug and we are working on a fix that should start rolling out early next week.” The spokesperson added that users can still visit amazon.com/alexaprivacy to view, listen to, and delete past voice recordings, including accidental ones. While playback is currently experiencing issues in the Alexa app, the website can play all of the recordings Amazon has stored on its servers.
Frank Garritano, an Echo device owner who lives in Northern California, was unnerved by the large number of snippets marked as “not intended for your Echo” in his Alexa app.
“Basically, I’m being told we listened to this recording, it wasn’t germane to an Alexa request, so we decided you can’t listen to it either. Are you freaking kidding me? I’m the person that’s being recorded,” Garritano told BuzzFeed News.
Ian Mercer, who also owns an Echo device, said his Alexa app had at least two of these recordings on every page of his voice history. “Why does it even log it if it allegedly doesn’t record you?” Mercer said.
Mercer has spent the last 15 years working on what he calls “the world’s smartest house” that incorporates some voice-activated technology not powered by Alexa or other tech company-backed voice assistants, like Siri or Google Assistant. “I would prefer a device where audio recognition is done on the device, rather than done on the cloud,” he said, citing privacy and faster response times.
Earlier this week, a Bloomberg report revealed that a team at Amazon listens to users’ audio snippets recorded by devices, which have included accidentally captured audio. The people working on this team told Bloomberg that among other things, they’ve reviewed recordings of what seemed to be a woman singing in the shower, a child screaming, and a sexual assault.
In an emailed statement to BuzzFeed News, an Amazon spokesperson wrote that “an extremely small sample of Alexa voice recordings” is annotated, and reviewing the audio “helps us train our speech recognition and natural language understanding systems.”
It’s all a good reminder that any voice-activated system may be listening when you don’t intend for it to. You can always press the microphone button to deactivate the microphone on your Amazon Echo, or, of course, you can unplug it.