Post updated 7/23/18 – At least once a year online discussion groups for owners of Alexa devices start buzzing with fretful anecdotes about privacy concerns around Alexa, and it’s happening again this month. Here are two situations that may look like a clear case of Alexa spying—but are not.
Sometimes I hear strange noises, muffled voices, commercials or music coming out of my Alexa device, and it stops just as mysteriously as it started. Doesn’t that prove someone at Amazon is always listening to my Alexa device, and sometimes an employee there accidentally leaves their own microphone or phone speaker on?
Sounds very exciting, like something out of a Jason Bourne thriller, but no. There are many possible causes for this, and it’s actually not terribly unusual among those who frequently use Bluetooth connection with their Alexa devices.
1. Check for any forgotten, but still active, Bluetooth connections. Remember, once you pair Alexa to a given device (like your phone) via Bluetooth, the Bluetooth connection will automatically be restored every time that device gets within Bluetooth connection range of the Alexa device. Your connected phone or tablet may have an active web connection, video chat session, or media player app going and your Alexa device is picking up on that audio. It can also be that alarms or push notifications on the paired device are coming through.
2. Do you use Alexa communication services? It may be that a prior Drop In (intercom) connection was not properly exited so you can still hear the TV or a radio from the room where the other device is located. If the Drop In was initiated from a phone or tablet, it may still be active on that device; I’ve found it’s sometimes difficult to end the Drop In from my phone, and I have to ask the person on the other end to tell Alexa to hang up. Until the connection is terminated, both parties can hear what’s going on at the other person’s end.
3. It could be that you’ve accidentally launched a skill you’ve enabled, because you accidentally spoke one of the launch phrases. It can also be a flash briefing or daily update launch accident, because there are several phrases you might say (like, “What’s up?”) that launch those features.
4. Do you have an Echo remote and a housemate who loves pranks? The Simon Says feature allows someone within range to make Alexa repeat whatever they speak into the remote. Hey, it’s been known to happen.
5. It’s also possible, though not very likely, that your Alexa device is picking up the transmission from a ham radio or similar transmitter device. Based on my research this is theoretically possible, but would not be easy to accomplish and therefore not likely to happen by accident.
I was talking about a product when Alexa was off, and then I started seeing Amazon ads for the exact same product all over the web! Doesn’t that prove Alexa is spying on me and Amazon’s using the data to customize the ads I’m seeing?
In a word, no. There’s a simple explanation that has nothing to do with Alexa.
When you’re interested enough in a product or service to be talking about it around your Alexa devices, chances are good that you’re also looking at listings for it on e-commerce sites, checking out review sites, doing internet searches about it, looking at examples of it on Pinterest and Instagram, etc.
Amazon belongs to just about every online ad and marketing placement service out there, and consumers automatically opt in for the data gathering that powers those services when they install browser software, sign up for online access to various services and accounts, or accept the terms on various social media and online news or entertainment sites. So you do all this online investigating of some product or service, news of your browsing gets back to Amazon (through the ad network, not Alexa), and Amazon starts serving you ads for that very product or service across all the sites where its ads appear.
When someone who’s already very sensitive to, and suspicious about, privacy issues experiences something that could either be a coincidence or the hint of a pattern, that person is primed to assume a pattern. From there, it’s not far from, “Hey, that’s an ad for the exact cell phone I’ve been researching!” to, “Hey, Alexa’s spying on me and Amazon’s lying to me!”