Virtual assistants may be growing in popularity, but a newly released Amazon patent reveals the privacy concerns surrounding them.
All virtual assistants have a “wakeword” that tells the device to start listening. Some companies use phrases, like Apple’s “Hey Siri,” but Amazon opted for the simple “Alexa” when developing its system.
An Amazon patent application filed in January and released this week has proposed that the wakeword shouldn’t exist. Instead, Alexa should listen to and record everything said in its presence.
The authors argued that users may not always structure a spoken command so that the device picks up on it. For example, instead of saying “Alexa, play some music” someone may say, “play some music Alexa” or “play some music Alexa, the Beatles please.”
If the wakeword isn’t said first, then Alexa isn’t turned on to actually hear and respond to the full command. The authors go on to say:
“The [proposed] system is configured to capture speech that precedes and/or follows a wakeword, such that the speech associated with the command and wakeword can be included together and considered part of a single utterance that may be processed by a system.”
The authors say that the system is designed so a device would only record 10-30 seconds of audio at a time before wiping it from the local memory buffer. However, Amazon has already run into privacy problems with its Echo devices before.
In 2018, an Echo device recorded a conversation between a Portland woman and her husband. The conversation was then sent to a colleague of the husband’s. Amazon told Gizmodo that the Echo device “woke up due to a word in background conversation sounding like ‘Alexa.'”
Earlier the same year, Amazon sent 1,700 Alexa recordings to a German user after they filed a data request, but the recordings belonged to a different person.
Even though the authors claim recordings would be deleted, Amazon recently ran into issues with its Echo Dot Kids. Advocacy groups found that it violated children’s privacy laws. One big issue was that the device continued to store data on children, even after parents tried to delete it.
If Amazon is having these issues already, then there are clear risks with the company eliminating the wake word in its entirety. As virtual assistants become more common, people need to be conscious of the fact that you may be giving up your privacy in exchange.