If you own a smart speaker, chances are you own an Amazon Echo.
More people trust Amazon to put a microphone in their bedrooms and kitchens than they do Google or anyone else—but still, there’s a nagging feeling that Alexa, the virtual personal assistant, is listening to all your conversations.
Rohit Prasad, Amazon vice president and head scientist of Alexa machine learning, told Quartz that Echo devices have been built with safeguards to protect against unwanted eavesdropping. The devices are intentionally limited technically, so they don’t have the capability to listen to your conversations.
Put simply, they’re just too dumb.
Alexa’s attention span, the buffer for how long Alexa stores what has been said, is only a few seconds, just long enough for the wake words (Alexa, Computer, Echo, or Amazon) that users can set. Nothing is saved on the device itself. It’s like recording on a tiny loop of analog tape: Every few seconds, the tape is rewritten.
Every Echo is loaded with four separate algorithms, each trained to listen for one of the four wake words. Once you set a wake word, that specific algorithm is activated, meaning your Echo can truly only understand one word. Only when the ring of lights around the top of an Alexa device is illuminated is the device recording and sending the audio to Amazon’s servers.
Echoes have a limited amount of AI on the device; Alexa’s brains for answering questions live on Amazon’s cloud servers. All Alexa can do constantly is scan for a wake word, Prasad says. It’s as if your brain only knew one thing: the way “Alexa” sounded. No family, no birthdays, nothing more.
If you’re still paranoid, you can also check to see what Alexa has heard by opening the Alexa app, which contains a complete history of every utterance the associated device has ever stored.