Alexa

What is Alexa?

Alexa is a virtual assistant developed by Amazon for its Echo and Echo Dot computing devices, which range in price from $50-200 USD. Alexa s capabilities are similar to those of other virtual assistants such as Apple Siri, Microsoft Cortana, Google Assistant, and Samsung Bixby.

Alexa acts on voice commands and responds to queries with information on Amazon products, music, news, weather, sports, and more. Amazon Web Services enables Alexa to learn a user s habits, routines, and preferences and expand its functionality accordingly over time.

Alongside the Echo products, Alexa is currently featured in most of Amazon s Fire device range, including the Fire HD tablets and Fire TV set-top box products. Numerous third-party products that support Alexa have also been developed since the release of Amazon Echo, such as Ford s SYNC automobile infotainment systems, Ring home security systems, and Philips Hue smart lights sets.

How Alexa works

Alexa is activated when it hears a trigger word ( Alexa, Computer, Echo, or Amazon ), followed by the user s query or request. Alexa can be customized to respond using one of 20 language/dialect combinations and uses natural language interpretation to process and act upon requests.

In addition to returning information, Alexa also enables Echo devices to function as smart home hubs that control Internet of Things devices like smart plugs, thermostats, and Facebook Portal smart displays. Beyond its built-in capabilities, Alexa offers more than 3,000 “Skills” from Amazon and third-party developers that users can use to extend Alexa’s functionality, including one for IFTTT, which can help coordinate and automate interaction between other connected devices.

Privacy concerns with Alexa

Alexa is configured to constantly listen in the background for its trigger word to be activated. Although the permissions can be changed, Alexa is also configured to record all activations and potential activations even though the trigger word might not have been said. This means Amazon continuously collects and stores data about Alexa users indefinitely, which has raised major privacy concerns among consumers.

These concerns were heightened by a 2018 phenomenon in which Alexa would unexpectedly start playing laughing audio on users devices because it mistakenly heard the command Alexa, laugh. This error was ultimately corrected by Amazon developers, who changed the command to be more pointed, Alexa, can you laugh? However, objective third parties have not been able to test the problem and validate this explanation/solution.

Privacy advocates have similar concerns about Alexa s use of natural language interpretation instead of voice recognition. As illustrated in a Burger King commercial that intentionally activated Google Home devices as a form of guerilla marketing, there are few device settings that will allow for a distinction between one user s voice from another. This creates the potential for smart speaker devices like Amazon Echo to be used maliciously; if an Echo device is located within range of someone outside a user s home, they could use voice commands to control any connected Alexa-enabled device.

Amazon Echo devices feature a mute button that will disable the device s microphones, but users are required to physically press the button in order for Alexa to stop listening. Ultimately, Amazon Echo (and other smart home device) users must weigh their own privacy concerns with the convenience and efficiency Alexa adds to their lives.

Vangie Beal
Vangie Beal
Vangie Beal is a freelance business and technology writer covering Internet technologies and online business since the late '90s.

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