Your Alexa or Echo can listen to you, record your conversations

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COLUMBIA — Smart speakers are listening and sending your personal conversations to the cloud.

Amazon has a global team of employees who listen, record and transcribe more than 1,000 audio recordings each day. The company said its employees listen to conversations so algorithms can be adjusted to everyday speech and regular requests.

“By default, Echo devices are designed to detect only your chosen wake word (Alexa, Amazon, Computer or Echo). The device detects the wake word by identifying acoustic patterns that match the wake word. No audio is stored or sent to the cloud unless the device detects the wake word (or Alexa is activated by pressing a button),” an Amazon spokesperson said.

Sandy Davidson, a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism, said the information sharing is a violation of privacy.

“What Alexa enables is intrusion into your seclusion and Amazon has not put people on sufficient notice of what Alexa is capable of doing,” Davidson said.

According to the law, there are two places with the highest expectation of privacy: your home and your office. Amazon allows users to disable information sharing features, but Davidson said that’s not good enough.

“People need to be put on notice prior to ever introducing this kind of intrusive technology into their living spaces,” she said.

Jackie O’Rourke has a Bluetooth speaker without a built in voice like Alexa or Siri. She said she won’t buy any speaker that does more than play music because of the risk to privacy.

“How do they have your permission to do that?” she said.

The information that smart speakers have gathered has been used in the courtroom. Prosecutors subpoenaed recordings from an Echo smart speaker for a murder trials, for instance. Davidson still views it an invasion of privacy.

“If police can use subpoenas to get this information, it certainly will make solving some crime easier. But the price is the problem,” Davidson said.

Amazon does provide directions for disabling smart devices from recording conversations. People like Davidson said consumers should presume all devices are able to listen to interactions and are expecting more lawsuits against tech companies like Amazon.

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