Amazon keeps records of users' Alexa interactions - and may not delete them
Christopher A. Coons, a US Senator for Delaware, has recently become concerned with the online retail and services behemoth Amazon and the amount of personal information it has on the people he represents. To this end, he sent a letter to the office of Jeff Bezos in May 2019, containing a number of pertinent questions about the popular smart speaker platform Alexa.
Coons wanted to know about the voice-data kept as a result of this system's use, and how much control an individual customer had over it. The senator received a response to his missive on June 28, 2019. In response to the second part of a question on Amazon's treatment of transcripts generated as a result of speaking to Alexa, the company stated that, although it does indeed make and keep them, a given user can have them deleted through a personal account with the company.
However, the letter also disclosed that Alexa's replies to customer requests are converted into transcripts, and that Amazon does retain these. These transcripts often relate to 'Alexa skills', which often involve responses made by this speaker when completing transactions. Many specific divisions of Amazon, in addition to numerous third-party companies, develop these skills themselves in order to conduct sales made through the assistant.
The response to Senator Coons' letter categorically named a number of developers as examples, including Amazon Music Unlimited, Amazon Fresh, Uber, and Dominos Pizza. In other words, every time a user asks their Alexa-enabled device to order from such an entity, the assistant's response is saved as a transcript. Therefore, not only can the user's activity be extrapolated from this recording, but Amazon or the developer in question (or both) retain access to it.
Amazon claims that this data is collected by the company in order to "improve Alexa and the customer experience". This involves using it to inform ongoing machine-learning processes at the company. In addition, it circumvented a follow-up query on whether or not the transcripts in question were eligible for per-user deletion by stating that "customers would not want or expect deletion of the voice recording to delete the underlying data or prevent Alexa from performing [regularly scheduled or recurring tasks]."
On the other hand, the response procured by Coons also included assurances that the voice assistant does not continue to listen in on user speech after it had been activated (via a "wake word" or button press) for a specific task, and stops listening in the event of speech irrelevant to it and its functions. Therefore, Alexa may keep records of its ends of user conversations, but at least it doesn't eavesdrop on the same individuals after they have stopped talking to it.