AVG Signal Blog Security IoT Is Alexa Always Listening To Us?

Written by Chris Crawford
Published on August 28, 2020

What exactly is Alexa? Got some details?

Alexa was launched in 2014, but wasn’t available to the general public until 2015 — before that, you needed a special invitation to get your own.

Alexa is a virtual assistant created by Amazon and powered by artificial intelligence. Think of her as your own personal robot friend, capable of voice interaction — which means you can talk directly to her and ask her questions, like “Hey Alexa! Where can I get some purple throw cushions for my living room?”

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    Alexa is only a program — she doesn’t physically exist, so she needs a “body” to work through, just like computer programs or apps work through your laptop or telephone. Alexa works through a “smart speaker” — the most common version of which is the Amazon Echo. Although there are other brands of smart speakers, the Amazon Echo is the one most people have, and it looks like a small cylinder that you can place on any flat surface.

    To start using Alexa, you first set a “wake word” that, when spoken, will awaken Alexa from her dormant state into her functioning state. It’s no surprise that the most common “wake word” is simply “Alexa.”

    With Alexa, you can create playlists of your favorite songs, make to-do lists, set alarms, stream podcasts, play audiobooks, and get weather, traffic, sports, and other real-time reports, as well as keep up-to-date with the news. You can also improve her capabilities by downloading apps, or “skills.”

    Roughly 60 million Americans now use Alexa, with around 157 million smart speakers installed in American homes. There’s also been a huge increase in Alexa’s capabilities: she went from having 130 skills in 2016 to having over 100,000 in 2019! 

    Alexa is also able to act as a centralized control hub for other smart devices in your home, allowing you to sync and automate some processes without having to deal with each smart device individually. There’s no doubt Alexa is popular and useful, but there are some privacy concerns around how protected our personal data is.

    Why should I worry about my privacy?

    Recent data shows that 54% of Americans are concerned about the amount of data their smart speaker collects.

    Here are some specific reasons why people still don’t fully trust Alexa:

    Amazon has a lot of control over people’s data, and it doesn’t look like they plan to change that anytime soon. It’s easy to worry.

    The answer is to make sure you have full control, so you can live your digital life in confidence. Install a good antivirus, like AVG Antivirus FREE, with Wi-Fi Inspector, to really strengthen your security and privacy, and ensure your network doesn’t suffer from any issues that could open the door to threats.

    So, just how much does Alexa actually know?

    Well, maybe she doesn’t know absolutely everything (yet), but she does know a lot about you. Think about this: Alexa collects data about each and every online interaction you have. If you do something online, Alexa knows about it. And yes, asking her questions counts as doing something online.

    Always bear in mind how many strange and varied things Alexa has been asked, and knows the answer to. And don’t forget all the data points Alexa has collected in her clinical robot mind to form optimizations, assumptions, and strategies about you and your online habits. 

    Generally, we all know marketers are spying on us, tracking our online habits, networks, affinities, and more — capturing our personal data sets, and using them to create a personalized customer persona which represents you. They do this by tracking where you spend time online, the online content you look at, your purchasing history, and other measurable behaviors.

    If marketing companies have access to this kind of data, and use it to target potential customers even more precisely than ever before, then imagine what Amazon could potentially do with the data Alexa captures. Alexa’s a remarkable tool, but, as a general rule, it’s so important to take precautions to protect your privacy whenever you’re online. 

    Data is now worth more than gold, and your personal data is sold by data-gathering companies to commercial businesses (sometimes even being passed around several businesses) who use it to gather insights. Making sure your personal data isn’t being exploited for profit is now more important than ever. 

    As for Alexa, she knows what you’re searching for online, the products you’ve bought through her, the music you’ve asked her to play, the movies you’ve asked her to order, and the messages you’ve asked her to send. 

    But before you throw your Alexa in a soundproof trash bin, you should remember that she’s not doing anything that abnormal. All digital data sets that you generate are tracked and analyzed, whether it’s on your phone, your tablet, an app, your browser, or yes, Alexa. All of this enables advertisers, marketers, and possibly hackers and digital criminals, to get a good idea of your habits, online behaviors, and other information, and that makes you an easy target for various forms of trickery, both legal and illegal.

    Every day, we generate huge amounts of data and give it away. It’s now incredibly easy to build a persona for almost every single person who goes online. 

    Alexa is very much part of the wider online privacy conversation, and that’s why it pays to know how to use her safely.

    Okay, how can I use Alexa safely?

    To use Alexa while maintaining your privacy and staying safe, there are a couple of things you can do:

    As the world continues to grow more connected, it’s vital to think about your online privacy and the steps you can take to improve it. After all, the more you trust your Alexa, or smart speaker, the more use you can get out of it.

    The takeaway

    Technological innovation is moving at an incredible pace, allowing us to do things we couldn’t have dreamed of a mere 20, or even 10, years ago.

    It’s clear that Alexa, or some variant of Alexa, is here to stay, and while some people are nervous about the security and privacy implications, usage just keeps on growing. As our personal networks of connected devices grow with smart fridges, lamps, washing machines, and other appliances entering our homes, so does the amount of data we generate each day of our digital lives.

    And, while Alexa is an amazing tool, we have to be aware that as our online networks grow, the number of threats to our security and privacy also become more numerous. The fact is, we still don’t know what the future of data looks like, and what repercussions there might be for those who’ve been historically careless with their data.

    Remember, it’s always better to be safe than sorry, and that goes double for your online privacy. It’s advisable to take responsibility for our own online protection which means stopping viruses and malware from infecting your devices, protecting your own privacy, and making sure you always use a secure Wi-Fi connection. AVG Antivirus FREE can help you take back control of your online security — all for free.

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    Chris Crawford