Amazon.com is updating its Alexa voice software to let users delete recordings of their voice using a spoken command, a move that follows criticism of the company’s privacy practices related to its digital assistant.
A coming set of updates will offer users who have opted in online the ability to say “Alexa, delete everything I said today,” or, similarly, delete their most recent utterance. Previously, the only way to remove recordings was a tool on the Alexa privacy website.
“It’s a good step in the right direction,” said Florian Schaub, a professor at the University of Michigan who has researched privacy issues related to smart speakers. Recent reporting and research on Amazon’s digital assistant, he said, likely “helped inform these decisions” by the company.
Some Amazon employees listen to users’ voice recordings as part of an effort to improve the software. Bloomberg reported earlier that Amazon.com employs thousands of people around the world to listen to voice recordings captured in Echo owners’ homes and offices. The recordings are transcribed, annotated and then fed back into the software as part of an effort to eliminate gaps in Alexa’s understanding of human speech and help it better respond to commands.
In some cases, those workers can access the location of the person whose voice they are transcribing. Amazon’s privacy and user policies didn’t explicitly disclose either practice. The team comprises a mix of contractors and full-time Amazon employees, who signed nondisclosure agreements barring them from speaking publicly about the program.
Meanwhile, a coalition of children’s and privacy groups asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether Amazon had violated children’s privacy laws by giving parents insufficient control of their kids’ data. And CNET reported that even after users delete Alexa voice recordings, a text record of that information lingers on Amazon’s servers. (Amazon said it was working on an update that would remove those text records from all of its systems after a user tries to delete them.)
Amazon’s move also comes as other technology giants make a point of touting their own efforts to safeguard user data. Facebook, under fire after a string of privacy scandals, has started emphasizing privacy features. Alphabet’s Google highlighted its own work on the topic at its developer conference earlier this month, and Apple has made privacy a cornerstone of recent marketing campaigns.
“It could be Amazon feels that they need to be in the same game,” Schaub said.
The company also gave its Alexa privacy website a facelift, adding a bit more explanation to how the software works. The company’s Echo Show 5, a new version of the screen-bearing smart speaker line, announced on Wednesday, comes with a shutter that lets customers cover the built-in camera.