Alexa, Amazon's smart assistant, is constantly evolving to reflect our preferences and to keep up with the latest tech developments. But should her latest round of updates, which include the ability to explain her actions and delete conversations, be cause for concern?
In the run up to Black Friday (when many of you might be investing in a smart speaker), we delve into what Alexa's latest functions mean for us, as well as how – and why – we should all be thinking about protecting ourselves, and our information, if we choose to share our homes with smart assistants. Conspiracy theorist? You're going to love this one...
What is a smart assistant?
A smart or virtual assistant is a piece of software installed on a smart device (such as a smart speaker or a smart phone) that can perform tasks and services, as well as answering questions. Examples include Google Assistant, Siri, or – in this case – Alexa. Discover more in our smart assistants guide.
- You may also find our Amazon Alexa review a handy read
- For the latest smart home news, advice and information, head over to The Hub
So, what new functions can Alex now perform? We'll talk you through them, individually.
1. Alexa can now recommend routines
Alexa has now developed the ability to recognise – and learn – daily routines based on our behaviour over a period of time. This is super handy if you tend to use your smart assistant in the same way, every day. And is a move towards an almost exclusively automated home.
How would this work, on a daily basis? Well, if you wake up at the same time, every morning, and immediately ask Alexa for the weather forecast, it will now be possible to establish a 'routine' where Alexa automatically provides this information, without us having to ask.
Similarly, it would be possible for Alexa to automatically turn on the heating in order for us to return to a warm house.
Should we be concerned?
It's often suggested that those with a rigid routine are most susceptible to crime because their behavior is predictable. To this extent, putting the details of a particularly repetitive daily routine into the hands of a smart assistant may leave you a little vulnerable, should the information get into the wrong hands.
But, it could be argued that this is no more of a threat than if someone were to watch your home in a bid to to gauge your daily routine. Plus, if you take our tips on how to protect your smart system from hackers on board (you'll find them below), realistically this shouldn't be too much of a threat.
2. Alexa can tell you about her responses
According to Amazon, Alexa will soon be able to provide more insight into her responses to your questions or commands. This is super handy if you often find that Alexa provides some... surprising... responses; or you just want to understand the way that Alexa thinks a little more.
In real terms, this means you would be able to say to Alexa 'tell me what you heard', to which she would provide a short explanation about her response to your last voice request.
Should we be concerned?
This new function seems like a serious step in the 'Alexa can think for herself' direction, which is a major sticking point for many smart assistant skeptics. It could open up all sorts of debates about Alexa's autonomy and we're sure it's one the conspiracy theorists will be really into.
3. Alexa can now delete conversations
Earlier in the year, Amazon made it possible for Alexa us to delete conversations using the simple command: 'Alexa, delete what I just said'.
That's set to be taken one step further, with the option to automatically delete voice recordings older than three or 18 months, on an ongoing basis. It will also become increasingly easier to delete specific conversations with Alexa, should you wish to.
Should we be concerned?
The debate surrounding Alexa's ability to store data is a big one and this latest development is sure to a stoke the fire. Why? Well, it raises the debate as to where this information is being stored, if there's the option to delete it.
The official word from Amazon (we chatted to a member of their product team) includes the following points:
- Echo devices use on-device keyword spotting to detect the wake word (Alexa, Amazon, Computer or Echo). The Echo device uses technology that inspects acoustic patterns in the surrounding environment to detect when the wake word has been spoken;
- No audio is stored or sent to the cloud unless the device detects the wake word;
- When the wake word is detected, the light ring at the top of the Echo turns blue, indicating the device is streaming your voice request to the cloud;
- Only recordings after the wake work are ever streamed to Amazon.
For more information regarding Alexa and personal safety, we'd recommend heading over to Amazon's Privacy Hub, which provides plenty of advice and information on the topic.
How can I protect myself?
- Rename your router – we'd recommend opting for something random that doesn't relate to your name, address, or location;
- Change your passwords – this one may seem obvious, but you'd be surprised how many people think 123, password, and the like are strong enough passwords. Something random, with a mix of numbers, letters and symbols is your best bet;
- Keep your software up to date – while it can be tempting to ignore manufacturers' demands to update your software, it could be the case that it's been triggered by a security breech, so is definitely worth your while to oblige;
- Check your settings – don't just assume that your smart system is automatically set up with your best security interests in mind. Take time to make changes that will reduce accessibility.