14 Facts Everyone Gets Wrong About Alexa
Is it a time-saving hero or did you just plop a cyber spy onto your kitchen counter? Learn the good, the bad, and the myths about this best-selling tech device.
According to a report from Consumer Intelligence Research Partners, smart-speaker sales hit 50 million this year and show no signs of slowing. The same study says that Amazon, which introduced its first Alexa-enabled speaker in 2014, has a market-majority share with 70 percent of sales. But as many people as there are who own an Alexa device, there are just as many who don’t fully understand what these gadgets can and can’t do. Here’s a primer on common myths surrounding the technology, and some of the cooler under-the-radar functions that Alexa offers. Check out this list of the 18 weirdest things you can buy on Amazon.
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Is it a spy?
“The Amazon products are just like any other voice-activated products: They are always listening. Not necessarily spying, but listening. They have to constantly listen in order to work properly. Alexa does keep a log and it stores it to ensure that commands and voice recognition get better.”—Chad Taylor, technology expert at Abt Electronics. Plus: Check out 20 amazing Alexa hacks all homeowners should know.
It’s waiting for you to give it the word
“It does monitor everything you say and every sound, but is primarily searching for the wake word—the word that activates a response—usually ‘Alexa’ or one of the other possibilities if you have chosen to use the alternatives.”—Kevin Kelly, president of Bigbuzz Marketing Group
Here’s what happens next
“Once the wake word is said, the device starts recording everything until it hears a pause. That audio file, called the ‘payload,’ is sent to the Amazon cloud to be processed by a natural-language-processing algorithm. Based on what you said, it will trigger certain actions, called ‘skills,’ some of which might be words for your device to say back to you, some might kick off home-automation functions like turning on a light, and still others might play a song or a video file.”—John McDonald, CEO of ClearObject
You can delete your history
“Alexa devices also collect data, like voice recordings. Amazon calls this your ‘dialogue history’ and says that this data can improve your Alexa experience. You can review or delete these recordings—either individually or in bulk—via the Alexa app.”—Ashley Boyd, vice president of advocacy, Mozilla
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It can be temporarily disabled
“Many Amazon Alexa devices (like Echo and Echo Show) feature microphones and cameras—both of which could potentially be exploited. When you’re not using a device’s microphone or camera, you can disable it. You can generally do this through external buttons or through the device’s settings menu. If you never plan on using the camera, you might place a piece of tape over the aperture.”—Ashley Boyd. Here are 10 unexpected ways you can use Alexa.
It can be an entry point for attack
“Although data collected by smart speakers is only sent to back-end servers after the wake-up word has been heard, voice assistants are always on, always listening—and therefore will always represent a significant attack surface in the home. For now, our biggest threat is on exploiting the built-in functionality of the technology. Researchers have successfully demonstrated that simple homophones can be used to activate malicious activities on Amazon’s Echo devices.”—Peter Zaborszky, founder of BestVPN.com
Over-ordering can be an issue
“The biggest problem I think that can arise for most people is unwanted purchases. I have read stories where kids especially will order products from Amazon using the voice assistant. Make sure you turn that feature off. It will save you some time and possibly money.”—Chad Taylor
You can set it up for kids
“The Echo Dot Kids Edition is actually set up for kids. It offers lots of kid-friendly games, can read stories, comes with a case, and includes subscriptions to popular premium ‘skills’ from Disney, Nickelodeon, and others. Ultimately, it is just a beefed-up subscriptions-based Echo Dot that allows parents to have somewhat of a worry-free device thanks to the two-year warranty, the parental controls, and additional features.”—Chad Taylor
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Alexa may share your info
“People using a smart home-operating system often think of the devices as stand-alone Google accounts with an audio component, but these tools actually have a very robust feature set. An Amazon device’s operating system will contain or share access to basic information about the owner provided when registering the device, along with much of the data collected by other Amazon services such as account log-in information, media purchased through Amazon, payment credentials used for purchases, and other details. If the Amazon account has been linked to other devices such as a smartphone or other connected home devices, the speaker may also be linked to Google Drive or other storage accounts not controlled by Amazon.”—Lee Reiber, chief operating officer of Oxygen Forensics, Inc.
It helps you drop in on friends
“One of the most underused functions is the video for child and elder care, which is integrated into the Echo Show or smaller Echo Spot. In an era where everyone is multitasking, it’s nice to get any help you can, and Amazon Alexa’s video function can be a great way to ‘drop in’ on your loved ones. I personally use the video function and find it a pleasant surprise when I’m in the kitchen and our Alexa has the little dot in the corner that says my mom is active in the kitchen and I can drop in and say hello.”—Kevin Kelly
It helps you be more charitable
“Anyone can make their own ‘skills.’ Simple ones can be built using the Amazon Alexa app on your mobile device. More complex ones can be built by developers and offered to the Alexa skill catalog. One of my favorites is charitable donations. Say, ‘Alexa, donate $20 to the American Cancer Society.’”—John McDonald
Be mindful of potential problems
“Of course, so-called ‘internet of things’ devices like Alexa are not designed to spy. They are designed to help improve and assist our quality of life, but at the same time, criminals are finding a way to abuse these devices for nefarious purposes. Consumers need to be aware of the potentials risks of including smart devices such as Alexa, Google Home, and Amazon Echo into their home environment.”—Daniel Smith, head of security research for Radware‘s Emergency Response Team
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A few words can trigger many actions
“A lesser-known function is Routines. Now, I have over 50 smart home devices in my house, and I can set a single command to . . . execute a suite of functions. For instance, when I wake up—yes, I wake up to an Alexa alarm—I say, ‘Alexa, good morning,’ and she opens the bedroom shades, turns the lights to 10 percent, tells me today’s weather forecast, and I am ready for the day! At night we say, ‘Alexa, shut it down,’ and all the locks in the house lock, the shades close, and 80 percent of the lights are turned off.”—Kevin Kelly. Next, check out 10 weird things your Alexa is capable of.
It’ll help save your vocal cords
“Another key underrated function is its intercom-like capability. We have eight Alexa devices in our house and use it to communicate throughout our home. My wife sings for a living, and her voice coach told her no more shouting upstairs for the kids to come to dinner or do your homework. So I bought an Echo Dot for every room so we can drop in from anywhere in the house and have a quiet, civil conversation with no yelling.”—Kevin Kelly