There are some moles in my house, a pair of snoops. I should know — I put them there. The Amazon Echo and Amazon Dot that I have in my home have been recording my family for a year — in other words, ever since I activated them. Alexa, it seems, is as much of a snoop as she is a helpful way to put groceries on my shopping list without having to find a pen and a paper. Reports emerged last month that Amazon devices had been catching snippets of their user’s lives. And not only were the devices recording us, but Amazon was storing the recordings. To what end? Amazon claims they have a team listening to the snippets so they can work to improve Alexa’s ability to understand natural language.
It’s undeniably creepy to have a multinational tech company eavesdropping when you aren’t asking it for assistance. And I was concerned enough about my family’s privacy that I decided to learn how to erase the recordings captured by our digital assistant and part-time spy.
Happily, Amazon lets its users review and erase the recording, although the process has a bit too many steps to be considered convenient. In order to access the Amazon Alexa recordings from my devices, I opened the settings menu on my Alexa app. Then I opened my Alexa Account. And finally, I tapped on Alexa Privacy which brought me to a page offering the option to review voice history.
Laid out for me was everything my devices had ever captured and saved, much of it transcribed and recorded. Most of the history were commands that had actually been intended for Alexa. For instance, I could listen to my 8-year-old asking Alexa to play his favorite podcast “Wow in the World,” in his sleepy morning voice. I could hear my wife asking Alexa to set timers for dinner.
Some of the transcripts were funny. In one instance Alexa had heard my request for classic essentials on Spotify as “classical sensuals.” I could see how, at least in that one case, a recording might help a team of software engineers improve Alexa’s response. But the catalog of saved recordings was vast, and peppered among them were recordings labeled “audio could not be understood” or “audio was not intended for Alexa.”
These piqued my interest. There was a slew of recordings Alexa determined weren’t requests for help, but were saved anyway. Instead of just deleting them, curiosity got the better of me and I started listening. And once I started, I couldn’t stop.
I heard a recording of my wife exclaiming happily that she was “right on schedule” one morning. I hear her telling me that she might have misquoted someone. I heard her ask my boys if they were saving the rest of their lunch for later.
I heard my boys too. Their little voices lilted in and out of the recording. I heard my 8-year-old ask if we could go to the beach as the dog panted loudly nearby. I heard the 6-year old playing Batman. I heard him ask if he and his brother could get a story read to them, and I heard snippets of my wife and I read Harry Potter aloud.
I heard stranger and less pleasant things too. I heard myself groan putting on my clothes in the morning. I heard my kindergartner wailing in a tantrum as I told him sternly to pull it together. I heard my wife cry. I heard myself swear.
I realized that what I had stumbled on was an unvarnished audio archive of my family’s life told in two- to three-second clips. I was hearing the family behaving as our natural selves, presumably unobserved. I was a fly on my own wall and it was a very strange sensation.
The thing is, two seconds was enough to pull me into memories of moments that weren’t anything special in the context of our everyday lives. I had not planned to remember them, and it was an algorithmic fluke that a device in my home captured them. But with the trigger of a few words from my wife reading Harry Potter, I thought back to that particular pre-bed story time and remembered holding my youngest son in my lap as we listened.
The distinct groan of me putting my clothes on was from the neighborhood Clean Up day. It was early and I was incredibly tired. I was putting on jeans as the morning light streamed through my window.
My son asking to go to the beach prompted memories of the beach day we had. We rode down on scooters and a thunderstorm erupted an hour after we arrived, driving us into neighbor’s home where we had an impromptu dinner.
Strangely, I wasn’t particularly present in any of these moments. I wasn’t mindfully cherishing the experience of my day-to-day family life. But hearing it, seemingly randomly preserved, started to make me think about the moments I missed. I looked up from my Alexa app and listened. My kids were downstairs chattering away. Playing a game of superheroes. I tuned in and listened as they negotiated a set of rules about how strong they could pretend to be — who could throw energy and who could block energy. It was a delightful conversation. And I would have missed it had I not thought to listen.
Alexa had been listening all along. And as creepy as that is, the machine had reminded me to be more present with my family by being in the moment and listening. It was a rare instance of technology prompting me to want to be closer to my family rather than further away, with my face buried in a screen.
And now, I didn’t really want to get rid of the recordings. They felt like a key to memories I didn’t know I’d preserved. Still, it felt irresponsible to trust Amazon with these private moments. So, a bit reluctantly, I hit the link and deleted recordings for all history. I also enabled the ability to ask Alexa to delete recording with a voice command.
Then, I sat quietly for a moment, closed my eyes, and listened to the sounds of my family.