Amazon appears to be making good on its effort to keep tightening privacy for its Alexa-powered devices, even after the hot-button issue has cooled down this year.
The most notable change is a new option to automatically delete your voice recordings immediately after they are processed by Alexa. A written transcript of these recordings will still be available for 30 days but can be deleted anytime you want.
This feature, which is available starting Thursday, builds on Amazon’s other auto-delete functions, which let a customer delete Alexa voice recordings on a rolling three-month or 18-month basis. Both those options were announced at Amazon’s launch event last year.
It’s one of several features that Karthik Mitta, Amazon’s director of Alexa privacy, laid out to CNET in an exclusive interview ahead of the company’s product launch event Thursday.
Mitta said Amazon has worked to add a lot more information around Alexa, including hundreds of new answers from the voice assistant about privacy questions.
“It’s not just about control and transparency,” he said. “It is important to help customers understand how this technology works. So education is a key part of the privacy program. We do have to take our customers along with us. So that’s been the spirit of many things that we’ve done.”
Making these kinds of changes will be critical to building back trust in voice assistants after a rocky 2019 that included a controversy over human reviewers listening to customers’ recordings. Added to that, Amazon is working to bring Alexa into more places, like the car and the office, so ensuring that customers trust Amazon devices will be necessary to keep expanding Alexa outside the home.
Last year, Alexa and all other major voice assistants took a big hit to their reputations after media reports revealed that the companies running these assistants use human reviewers to listen and annotate a small selection of customers’ recordings. That practice is needed to make sure these digital assistants work, but news stories uncovered a bevy of privacy problems, including reviewers listening to sensitive recordings like doctor-patient conversations and people having sex.
Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant and Microsoft’s Cortana all made changes to allow customers to restrict human reviews of their recordings, which helped tamp down the controversy. Mitta said Amazon has made many internal security and privacy changes as well, such as scrubbing information that could identify a customer from recordings that are reviewed by a person. He added that Amazon has continually published blog posts and other informational material to educate customers about Alexa, which after six years remains a relatively new technology.
“It was a learning [experience] for all of us,” Mitta said, “not just us, for the industry.”
In addition to the new auto-delete feature, Amazon later this year will let you delete all your saved voice recordings by saying, “Alexa, delete everything I’ve said.” You could previously do this only by using the Alexa app or going on Amazon.com.
Last year, Amazon added a similar command: “Alexa, delete everything I said today.”
Mitta admitted that some new privacy features will restrict some Alexa capabilities. For example, some personalization won’t be available if you turn on the new automatic deletion option. But he said Amazon will continue to find the balance between the need for privacy controls and new features.
Mitta’s team added hundreds of new privacy responses to Alexa, which will be available starting Thursday, so people can ask things like, “Alexa, can I turn off your camera?” If you ask, “Alexa, how do I review my privacy settings?” the voice assistant will then send you information to the Alexa app.
Lastly, Amazon will be sending an email to customers about their Alexa privacy options by the end of the year. Mitta said there are no plans to send more emails like this just yet, as the company is still learning the best ways to provide useful privacy information to customers when and how they want it.
There are still plenty of critics of Amazon’s voice assistant. The advocacy group Fight for the Future, for instance, has often claimed Amazon is using its smart home devices for surveillance and data collection.
Those criticisms mean Mitta likely has more work to do to improve Alexa’s privacy.