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Amazon bolsters Alexa privacy after user trust takes a hit

The company tries to temper customer concerns by unveiling privacy controls like auto-deleting recordings and "Home Mode" for Ring cameras.

Ben Fox Rubin Former senior reporter
Ben Fox Rubin was a senior reporter for CNET News in Manhattan, reporting on Amazon, e-commerce and mobile payments. He previously worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and got his start at newspapers in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Ben Fox Rubin
5 min read

Amazon's David Limp at his company's product launch last Wednesday in Seattle.

James Martin/CNET

Within the first five minutes of Amazon 's product launch event last week, hardware chief David Limp's voice took on a serious tone. As he walked across a stage at the company's Seattle headquarters, a Twitter message appeared on a large screen behind him, from a customer worried about the tech giant's voice assistant. "@AmazonHelp," it read, "I have privacy concerns surrounding your Alexa device."

Limp addressed the hundreds of reporters and analysts at the event. "I know many of you have written headlines about this over the past year," he said. "And we care about this."

Then Limp demonstrated how seriously Amazon is taking privacy , unveiling a host of new features that give consumers more control over Alexa privacy settings. Those features include auto-deleting recordings, preventing Alexa from turning on at unintended times and more privacy controls for Ring home-security cameras.

Limp's introduction to Amazon's celebration of its product ingenuity veered away from the typical script of tech presentations, which are often either brand rah-rah sessions or extended gadget advertisements, or both. 

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The choice to deviate from Big Tech's playbook underscores how serious a problem privacy issues have become for voice assistants, particularly Amazon's Alexa. The list of woes includes news that human reviewers listened to users' private conversations, a common practice to train digital assistants but one many customers didn't know about. Amazon's child-friendly Echo Dot Kids Edition smart speaker has also worried parents over how it uses and stores kids' data.

So far, there's little indication these worries have weighed on sales of voice-activated devices like Amazon's Alexa-powered Echo line. But Limp and his team seemed to understand that if the problems fester, they could erode consumer trust. So rather than avoid the unpleasant conversation, Amazon opted to address it publicly. Now it'll be up to consumers to decide whether the giant e-retailer has done enough. 

Watch this: Amazon wants to deliver on privacy (The Daily Charge, 9/30/2019)

Gaining that trust is crucial for Amazon's plans. At the event, the company asked consumers to invite Alexa deeper into their lives. Amazon wants Alexa with us all the time, rolling out on-the-go products like the Echo Frames smart glasses, Echo Loop ring and Echo Buds wireless earbuds. If Alexa is with us everywhere, privacy considerations are even more important.

"I think they addressed the elephant in the room," said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Creative Strategies, who attended the launch. "Not talking about it, I think, would have seemed weird, especially when you're giving us more devices, they're doing more things in the home and really trying to continue to cement our relationship with Alexa."

We're listening

Of course, Alexa isn't the only digital assistant to face privacy concerns. This year, smart-speaker customers learned that human reviewers were listening to recordings from just about every major voice assistant, including Alexa, Apple's Siri , Google's Assistant and Microsoft's Cortana.


Limp stands in front of a customer's comment about privacy concerns during the first few minutes of his presentation.

James Martin/CNET

The monitoring is necessary to develop these assistants, and only a small fraction of recordings are reviewed. Still, Amazon and other tech giants were criticized for failing to be more transparent about the process, especially when some of the recordings that were reviewed included sensitive audio, such as doctor-patient conversations and people having sex. In one case, a contractor for Google leaked more than a thousand customer recordings to a Belgium-based news service.

In response, Amazon bolstered its privacy settings and set new restrictions on its human reviews. So did Google, Microsoft and Apple.

Along with the new auto-delete feature, Limp introduced the ability for customers to say to their Echo speakers, "Alexa, tell me what you heard" and "Alexa, why did you do that?" These queries are meant to increase transparency around what Alexa is listening to and why it responds in certain ways. 

The company also created the new Alexa Communications for Kids to let parents pick which contacts their kids are allowed to talk to on the Echo Dot Kids Edition.

Those features follow work from earlier this year. Amazon last month started letting customers opt out of human reviews if they wished. The company in May created an Alexa privacy hub on its website and it lets users erase their recordings by saying, "Alexa, delete everything I said today." Amazon's two newest Echo Show smart displays, including the Echo Show 8 introduced at last week's event, have privacy shutters for their cameras.

Following Limp's presentation, where he unveiled a long list of new Alexa products, I sat down with Toni Reid, vice president of Alexa experience, and Karthik Mitta, director of Alexa privacy.

Reid conceded that the human reviewer debacle ended up hurting customer trust among owners of smart speakers from Amazon, Google and others.

"It's our job to help teach customers," Reid said. "I think that we collectively missed an opportunity to really help customers understand the state of technology."

Going forward, she and Mitta say the company will continue to find more ways to bolster privacy for Alexa and offer more transparency about how Amazon uses customer data to improve its voice assistant. That'll include more efforts to explain how Alexa works, since voice computing is still a fairly new market. The Echo launched in 2014.

"We constantly listen to customers, we hear their feedback, and this is an evolving space, and we will evolve with the needs," Mitta said.

Making changes

Alexa isn't Amazon's only privacy concern.

In May, children's advocates demanded the Federal Trade Commission investigate the Echo Dot Kids Edition, saying they were concerned about the data the device collects. The next month, Amazon was hit with two lawsuits alleging the company failed to get children's or their parents' consent when Alexa records kids. Amazon says it does require parental consent and provides many privacy controls for parents.

Amazon's Ring video doorbell company has also been criticized for partnering with over 400 US police agencies, an arrangement that some advocacy groups assert is the start of a surveillance network.

Watch this: Amazon Echo Studio and new Echo Dot are big on sound and time

Evan Greer, deputy director of digital rights group Fight for the Future, accused Amazon of expanding its data collection and surveillance work with its newest products.

"Every year Amazon releases new products with surveillance features that record our voices, scan our faces and harvest our personal information," he said before the event. "This is not progress. This is not innovation."

Amazon has said privacy is a fundamental part of its devices and it provides a lot of tools to give customers control of their data.


Ring's new indoor camera, which was unveiled at last week's press event.

James Martin/CNET

At the entrance to a demo room just after the Amazon presentation, Ring CEO Jamie Siminoff stood in front of a display of Ring home security devices. He discussed some of Ring's new privacy features, such as a "Home Mode" option to turn off audio and video for Ring cameras, and "privacy zones" that prevent cameras from recording certain areas of the home. He added that his company will continue to work with law enforcement as an important part of making neighborhoods safer.

As with Alexa products, Siminoff said, user trust and privacy are critical elements for his company, so he'll continue to work in that area, too.

"If we don't earn trust and really protect our neighbors, what we call our customers," Siminoff said, "then we will never be able to make a neighborhood safer, because they will not trust us with their business."