Privacy is the big thing that gives people the heebie-jeebies when it comes to digital assistants like Alexa. But at Amazon’s devices and services event today, the company announced it was expanding privacy settings with regard to voice recordings.
Later this year, you’ll be able to say, “Alexa, delete everything I’ve said.” According to Amazon, that command will then delete all previously saved voice recordings associated with your account. But, wait, didn’t Amazon already let you do that before? What gives?
Previously, you had to navigate through labyrinthian menu settings to find the page where you could review and delete any recordings. Then, in 2019, Amazon introduced the ability to say “Alexa, delete what I just said,” to erase your last request. You could say “Alexa, delete everything I said today.” While a nice improvement, it wasn’t completely foolproof. Gizmodo found that the feature was not only opt-in, it didn’t necessarily mean that all your recordings from a 24-hour time period would be deleted. Ostensibly, clarifying the prompt to, “Alexa, delete everything I’ve said,” leaves less wiggle room than trying to define what time period “today” refers to.
It also appears that Amazon is trying to somewhat simplify the whole process. You can now ask, “Alexa, how do I review my privacy settings?”, which will send you to a direct link in the Alexa app to the relevant page. Hopefully, this means you’ll never have to cry while looking at Amazon’s horribly crowded page menus again. You can also now “choose whether or not to save your voice recordings.” Amazon said in its event liveblog that if you opt for the latter, recordings will automatically be deleted once Alexa processes your request. It also says that “all previously saved recordings will also be deleted.”
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But it’s possible there’s a catch. Last July, Amazon confirmed that it kept text transcripts of Alexa requests—even if a user had asked for those recordings to be deleted. Specifically, Amazon said at the time it kept text transcripts of Alexa requests to subscribe to things like Amazon’s music or delivery services, as well as other requests like ordering pizza, setting alarms, and scheduling calendar events.
Why does Amazon need voice recordings at all? The sad truth is voice assistants still cock things up on the regular when it comes to understanding human voices. Just ask Siri.
But regardless of whether you believe Alexa actually will delete everything you’ve ever said to it, making it easier for people to review their settings is always a good thing. If you really, really, really don’t want Big Tech to have your voice data, your best bet is not buying into digital assistants at all.
Update, 09/24/2020, 2:45pm: After initial publication, an Amazon spokesperson sent Gizmodo the following statement with regard to transcripts: “When a customer deletes a voice recording, we also delete the transcript of that recording, including both the customer’s request and Alexa’s response.”