If you’re already freaked out by the privacy implications of smart speakers such as Amazon’s Echo, we have some bad news.
At the moment, to activate an Alexa-enabled device all you have to do is say “Alexa” or whatever you program the “wakeword” to be. According to Amazon, Alexa only sends your recorded voice to Amazon’s servers after you have awakened it. That invokes a slightly formalised method of communicating with your small machine, as you say its name before asking something of it.
For instance: “Alexa, why do I have to address you so formally?”
Amazon has envisioned changes to Alexa that would allow the AI to record what users say before they use the wake-up word, so users don’t have to start every command by waking up their robot.
A patent filed by Amazon made public this week lays out Amazon’s vision for a “system for capturing and processing portions of a spoken utterance command that may occur before a wakeword”. BuzzFeed first reported on the patent, which sheds light on Amazon’s potential plans for Alexa — plans the company swears it has in no way enabled thus far.
The patent provides an example of a drawback of the current technology. If someone says “play some music, Alexa” or “play some music, Alexa, the Beatles please”, Alexa wouldn’t play music because the wakeword came after the command.
But under the technology laid out in the patent, when Alexa detects a wakeword, it will then “look backward” to find if a command was made before, and use speech pauses to find the start of the command. It would be able to do this because it would be recording constantly, and supposedly deleting what it doesn’t need.
As BuzzFeed explains, this concept is similar to Apple’s Live Photos, which photographs a moment before and after users push the capture button.
The patent addresses “privacy concerns associated with an ‘always-on’ speech processing system” by clarifying that all captured speech isn’t sent to Amazon’s servers.
Reached for comment, an Amazon spokesperson sent Gizmodo the same statement it sent other news outlets.
“The technology in this patent is not in use, and referring to the potential use of patents is highly speculative,” the statement read, adding that many of their patent applications “explore new scientific ideas that may not make it into customer-facing products”, and patents “do not necessarily reflect current or near-future state of products and services”.
Amazon did not answer Gizmodo’s request for comment on whether Amazon had any plans to use this technology.
This patent is likely just an attempt to make Alexa a more natural experience for Amazon customers. But amidst reports that Amazon helpers are listening to some Alexa records and the company is accidentally sending Alexa recordings to strangers or acquaintances, it’s safe to say if you care about privacy, you should throw your Alexa devices into the sea.