How to Stop Alexa from Ratting You Out to the FBI

You probably saw the news story last week. Unbeknownst to them, a couple's Alexa Echo recorded their conversation, then emailed it to someone in their contact list. Creepy. Here's how you can determine what Alexa has recorded in your house, and edit the archive and delete files.

Here's how the story unfolded. A woman in Portland told a TV station that one of her husband's employees in Seattle called and told her that he had received a voice recording of a conversation of theirs (concerning hardwood floors). Every room in their house had been equipped with an Alexa device so there was no lack of microphones. But exactly how can something like that happen?

Amazon confirmed that the private conversation had indeed been recorded and sent. As it turns out, although unlikely, the sequence of events needed to complete the deed is not completely impossible. Someone said a word that sounded like "Alexa" and that woke up the Echo. Then it heard something like, "Send message." Alexa would have responded with, "To whom?" Apparently the couple didn't hear that, or ignored it. The conversation continued and Alexa heard a word that sounded like a contact name. Alexa would have asked, "[contact name], right?" And she heard something like, "Right." At which point, Alexa sent the recorded conversation to the contact. Unlikely, but very plausible.

Alexa does have her quirks. You might remember awhile back when a parrot used Alexa to order some stuff from Amazon. More recently, some Alexa users were unnerved by what seemed to be spontaneous laughter from Alexa. Apparently that was also being triggered inadvertently and the company wrote some code to help prevent it.

So, if you have Alexa in your house, and you would prefer that a recording of your secret meeting to overthrow the government not be sent to the FBI, here's how you can check your Alexa to see what she's been recording. All recent recordings are available for playback in the companion Alexa app for iOS and Android. It's easy. Open the app, click the menu on the left side, select Settings and scroll down to General and History. You can read phrases, play back the recording, and delete them.

Even if you just say the word "Alexa" or something sounding like it, you've been recorded.

You might be surprised to see the enormity of what commands and conversations have been recorded (all of it is archived by Amazon). Even if you just say the word "Alexa" or something sounding like it, you've been recorded. A lot of stuff is normal usage, such as your requests about song titles, radio stations, time and weather, and so on. For example, you may hear a recording of you asking Alexa how many angels dance on the head of a pin. Creepy, but in fact the device is doing exactly what it's designed to do. Hopefully you won't hear your kid asking Alexa something entirely inappropriate. But also look for "text not available" in this list. This shows when Alexa was woken up, and recorded something that wasn't a request. That might be where your conversations about hardwood floors and overthrowing the government are kept.

The phone app lets you see and hear your recordings, but only lets you delete recordings one by one. Rather than delete them singly, after a bit of poking around, you can use this Amazon web page to nuke them all. From that same web page, you can delete all of your Alexa recordings from the cloud servers. Amazon cautions that this may degrade the functionality of the service. You cannot listen to recordings from the web page.

Let's also address the specific Alexa skill that enables it to send voice recordings. If you set up Alexa to make Alexa-to-Alexa calls via the speaker or app, or calls to landlines and mobile phone numbers, it can send voice recordings. If you don't set this up, it cannot.

To recap: smart speakers are always listening for the wake word. They only start recording when they hear the word or misinterpret another word. When they are triggered, they start to record and that file is archived in a cloud server. It is up to you to manage recordings. Some things you can do: 1) Alexa has four wake words (Alexa, Echo, Amazon, computer); pick the one that you think you'll use the least often. 2) Turn up Alexa's volume; while annoying, you'll be able to more clearly hear when she's been triggered, and thus begins recording. 3) Do not allow Alexa to access your contacts. 4) Turn off the microphones using the microphone switch. 5) Disable Purchase by Voice or set up a PIN number that helps ensure accuracy. 6) Don't let contacts use the "drop in" feature to hear (or see) what you are doing.

It is expected that within two years, half of U.S. homes will have at least one smart speaker. Your summer reading list: 1984 and Brave New World. Alexa will be happy to order those for you. Just say the word.

jnemesh's picture

Don't buy one.

Step 2: if already purchased, unplug and throw in trash.


jnemesh's picture

"To recap: smart speakers are always listening for the wake word. They only start recording when they hear the word or misinterpret another word."

As long as it hasn't been hacked, or the programming hasn't been changed by Amazon on the behest of a government.

The USER has NO IDEA when it IS recording, and we only have Amazon's word that it's only recording when it is supposed to be. You have an INTERNET CONNECTED MICROPHONE in your home! And YOU don't control it!

People who buy this type of product don't deserve any privacy, nor should they expect it.

PunchyRedcrown's picture


"recording when it is supposed to be." And when is that exactly? I'm with you all the way on your step 1 and 2. The other side of the coin is listening and can we be assured nobody is doing that?

jnemesh's picture

"When it's supposed to be" is when it's triggered by a command. But we have seen evidence that it records whenever it wants to and may, on it's own, send recordings of audio. It would be trivial for these devices to be abused, either by Amazon, ISPs who relay the data (or anyone who has access to their systems), or the Government. There is also very little in the way of regulation of these devices, unlike, say, cell phones. I would bet money that if data was harvested by law enforcement and used in a criminal case, their argument to the court would be that people agreed to be monitored voluntarily simply by installing and using the device.

I don't have anything to hide in my personal life, but the erosion of our privacy even in our homes is astounding, and saddening...and even more so because millions of people are willingly sacrificing personal privacy just to save them the tedious effort of pressing a button.

drny's picture

The following were my comments on a recent futurist article titled:"Internet Things".

June 8,1949 George Orwell's 1984 was published.
In 1975, while in High School I read it for the first time.
It was disconcerting and scary, but improbable that by 1984 (nine years later) that would be our reality.
Techno Fascism is at the door folks. What's worse we, the consumer, are spending our hard earned money to allow Big Brother (Government and Business) to monitor our lives so as to "Guide us" into the collective good.
By 2024, in the seventy fifth anniversary of 1984, George will rise from his grave and yell BOO! I told you so.


hk2000's picture

Only an idiot would put a device with a camera or a MIC in their house and expects not to be exposed one way or another. It used to be you had to go to a great length of effort and expenses to be able to spy on someone, now you can do it easily, and the idiots are paying for the necessary HW to do it.