Did you know Alexa records everything you say? Here’s how to delete it all
Voice assistants like Alexa may be incredibly popular, but they’re also new technology, and they’re raising a few big questions. One of those questions is just how voice commands and related conversations are processed and stored. Alexa devices, for example, store recordings of your history of commands or Alexa-related discussion that it picks up on. This data is held in Amazon cloud services and doesn’t just go away on its own.
That makes some people pretty uncomfortable, especially those who are sensitive about their privacy or worried how these recordings may be used. The good news is that you can delete your history of Alexa recordings whenever you want to. Here’s how to do it.
STEP 1: OPEN THE ALEXA APP
Navigate to the Alexa app you use to control your Alexa device. It’s probably on a mobile device you have, and the icon is a light blue with a white circle. Open up the app, and sign in using your Amazon account password if necessary. If you’ve never used your Alexa app before, or if it’s been a very long time since you’ve used it, Alexa may run you through a quick setup procedure first. This only takes about a minute or so to get through.
When you arrive at the home screen, look in the upper left-hand corner and select the icon that looks like dashed lines, or the main menu. Look down to the bottom of the menu and select the option that says Settings.
From here, look at the top of the new menu and select Alexa Account. This will take you to yet another menu. At the bottom you should see an option that says Alexa Privacy. Select this to begin.
STEP 2: SORT AND GO THROUGH YOUR RECENT ALEXA HISTORY
The Alexa Privacy section will give you several different options for reviewing the sensitive information that Alexa has collected. You may want to spend some time here. But for this particular task, you will want to go to Review Voice History. This will open a new screen with all your recorded Alexa conversations.
At the top of the screen, you will see an option to change the Date Range. You can choose options for seeing today’s commands, yesterday’s, and so on, all the way to viewing your entire history. If you really want to weed through all your recordings, you need to choose All History. This will display all your conversations with Alexa when they occurred, and on what device.
STEP 3: DELETE YOUR HISTORY AS YOU WISH
As you view your recordings, you will notice that some have the text of your conversations, like, “Alexa, is it gonna snow today?” but that other recordings say, “Text not available – audio was not intended for Alexa.” These recordings happen when Alexa is still listening for a second after answering your question (it’s caught me mocking it before), or if nearby conversations sounds like someone said “Alexa” but the voice assistant determines that no one was really talking to it. You can click on these recordings to play them and see what they are if you are curious.
To the left of each recording, you will see a checkbox. Select the checkbox of every recording that you want to delete. Then go up top and choose Delete Selected Recordings to remove them all.
STEP 4: DELETE YOUR WHOLE HISTORY AT ONCE IF YOU NEED TO
If you don’t want to take the time to review all your recordings, or don’t really care what they say, you can also delete them all without looking. Simply look at the top of the Review Voice History menu and select Delete All Recordings for All History.
You can also delete your entire history from your computer without going to the Alexa app. Simply go to Amazon’s Manage Your Content and Devices site, and make sure that you are in the Devices tab. Here you will see all the devices connect to this Amazon account. Select an Alexa device, and then look below the name of the device to see an option that says Delete Voice Recordings. Select this, and Amazon will pop up a quick warning screen. Select Delete, and you should get a message that says Your deletion request was received. All done!
FINAL NOTE ON DELETING ALEXA RECORDINGS
Deleting Alexa recordings is an important part of your privacy, and Alexa recordings have made their way into prosecution cases before, although there’s not a lot of precedence for this sort of thing so far. We understand if you don’t want your recordings existing out there in the cloud. However, there is an important caveat to deleting your messages: Alexa uses your recordings to help improve the accuracy of its listening functions. In other words, the more you talk to Alexa, the smarter it becomes at recognizing your voice and understanding what you’re saying. When you delete all your recordings, you’re getting rid of Alexa’s “memory” of your voice, so Alexa may have more trouble recognizing your commands. It’s a small price to pay, but worth noting. You can always build the recognition back up again with new voice commands.
It’s easy to imagine a world in which “Alexa” is synonymous with talking computers, or Echo with smart speakers—just as Kleenex is synonymous with facial tissue, Xerox with copy machines, or Google with online search. (These are called genericized trademarks, or proprietary eponyms, by the way. They need a better name.)
That’s almost the world we live in today, thanks to the dramatic early success of Amazon’s pioneering smart speaker and the surprisingly capable digital assistant that animates it. Almost, but not quite.
It’s true that voice-powered smart speakers are on the path to ubiquity: Analysts predict that most U.S. households will eventually have one. But at a time when sales are booming around the world, it’s becoming clear that Amazon’s first-mover advantage wasn’t built to last.
While there are no official sales figures, mounting evidence suggests that Echo devices have been losing ground in the past year to competitors on multiple fronts. Assemble the pieces from an array of market-research reports with different methodologies, and the picture is that of a rapidly shifting landscape in which no single company is likely to dominate long-term—but if anyone does, it might be Google. That matters not only to industry watchers and investors but to anyone who cares about the business models and privacy practices of the tech goliaths that mediate what we say, learn, buy, and do.
Amazon, Google, and Apple don’t report sales of the Echo, Home, or HomePod, respectively, preferring to shelter them from investor scrutiny by lumping them into categories such as “Other Products” when they report earnings. What we know of their sales, then, comes largely from third-party market-research firms, plus tidbits and hints that the companies occasionally drop. The market-research firms’ estimates can vary, sometimes widely, based on their methodology.
With that caveat aside, a consensus has emerged on the broad trends. Here are three of the big ones:
• Google Home devices are rapidly catching up to Amazon Echo devices in worldwide sales and may have already surpassed them.
• Apple’s HomePod isn’t selling as poorly as some initial reports suggested, and Samsung just launched its own smart speaker.
• China is the fastest-growing market for smart speakers, and neither Amazon nor Google is a significant player there.
The common thread: Alexa is losing its edge. And the obvious question: What happened?
As recently as a year ago, Amazon single-handedly controlled the global smart speaker industry, with a market share upward of 75 percent, according to estimates from two of the leading market watchers, Strategy Analytics and Canalys, based in Singapore. Amazon itself boasted in a February earnings report that it had sold “tens of millions” of Echo devices in 2017. That figure included not only its flagship Echo smart speaker but the Echo Dot, Echo Show, and other Echos, the company clarified to me (though not other Alexa-powered gizmos, such as the Tap or Fire TV). It makes sense that Amazon was crushing the competition because there wasn’t much competition yet: Google had just launched the Home in late 2016, and Apple’s HomePod was not yet on the market. The Echo has been available since 2014.
Would-be rivals faced an uphill struggle. Amazon’s head start in smart speakers resembled the daunting leads that Apple famously built in portable MP3 players, smartphones, and tablets. But Apple’s high prices at least gave competitors an opening to build cheaper alternatives for the mass market. Not so with Amazon. Because it viewed Echo partly as a path to Amazon purchases, the company sold its smart speakers at affordable prices, opting to maximize sales rather than profit margins. How could latecomers compete?
As recently as a year ago, Amazon single-handedly controlled the global smart speaker market, with a market share upward of 75percent.
Yet visions of an Amazon smart speaker monopoly faded faster than almost anyone expected. Google, in particular, has been catching up in a hurry. That could be partly because its Assistant is “smarter” than Alexa, by some metrics. But the Echo is more capable in other respects, and it continues to be a top-rated device in the category.
Analysts say the secrets to Google’s success lie elsewhere. A big-budget marketing blitz, an aggressive push to partner with retailers and makers of smart home gadgets, and the company’s reputation for answering search questions got it off to a good start. It didn’t hurt that the company was also pushing the Google Assistant—its equivalent of Alexa—onto hundreds of millions of Android devices. Perhaps most importantly, Google has experience, partners, and language capabilities in overseas markets where Amazon is less established.
Oh, and perhaps you’ve heard that brick-and-mortar retailers aren’t big Amazon fans. “Retailers are more open to the idea of arranging Google’s smart speakers because Google isn’t seen as such a direct competitor,” said Vincent Thielke, research analyst for Canalys.
By early this year, according to multiple industry reports, the tide was turning in Google’s favor. One firm, Strategy Analytics, estimated this month that Amazon’s global market share dipped from 76 percent to 41 percent over the past year, with Google’s rising to 28 percent. The firm projects Google’s smart speaker sales to surpass Amazon’s by 2020, said Bill Ablondi, director of smart home strategies.
It’s worth noting that Canalys counts devices shipped to retailers, even if they haven’t yet been purchased by consumers. Canalys derives its estimates partly from suppliers, vendors, and other third parties, while Strategy Analytics relies on sources within the companies that make them. A third report, from the news and research site Voicebot, used consumer surveys to estimate how many users each firm’s smart speakers have. It found that 62 percent of U.S. smart speaker owners had an Amazon Echo, while 27 percent had a Google Home, as of May. That methodology favors Amazon by counting devices purchased in the past. But even there, Google was rapidly gaining ground, tripling its market share in the first half of 2018.
While Google appears to be beating Amazon at its own game, Apple is playing a different one. Its HomePod starts at a cool $350, compared to $100 for a Home and $85 for an Echo, and aims at audiophiles with the promise of hi-fi sound quality. Early reports of lackluster HomePod sales have dampened enthusiasm, but both Voicebot and Strategy Analytics said it’s too soon to write off Apple as a serious competitor. The former put Apple’s second-quarter market share at 6 percent, enough to dent both Amazon and Google’s growth.
More competitors are looming: Electronics giant Samsung has just launched its Galaxy Home smart speaker, and a bevy of audio companies are gradually getting in on the game. Meanwhile, smart displays are emerging as an alternative to audio-only speakers, and Facebook is working on a device called Portal that could focus on video calling.
In the long run, though, it isn’t just Silicon Valley that threatens Amazon’s smart speaker lead. It’s China.
A year ago, pundits were wondering why smart speakers weren’t catching on in China. No one’s wondering that anymore: It is by all accounts the fastest-growing market for smart speakers. And virtually none of that growth is going to Amazon or its U.S. rivals, which don’t offer Chinese-language versions. It’s going instead to Chinese giants such as Alibaba, Xiaomi, and Baidu, which are pumping out smart speakers that go for a fraction of the price of the Echo or Home. These aren’t just cheap knockoffs, either. At CES this year, Baidu showed off high-concept smart speakers that look like lamps, ceiling lights, or even a colorful stack of blocks. Amazon and Google’s devices look outdated by comparison.
The smart speaker wars aren’t just an industry story. Yes, these firms are vying for slices of a sales pie that could top $23 billion by 2023, according to Strategy Analytics (or $30 billion by 2024, according to Global Market Insights). But smart speakers, like smartphones, aren’t just about the hardware. They’re about the platform that powers them—in this case, the voice A.I.—and how it shapes users’ behavior.
When you buy an Echo, you’re paying Amazon $85 today. But it also gives you a strong incentive to pay it $120 a year for Amazon Prime, and perhaps another $80 per year for Amazon Music Unlimited. On top of that, it makes it very easy to buy things on Amazon and plays nicely with other Alexa devices like the Fire TV.
Purchase a Google Home, on the other hand, and it will fit right in with Chromecast, YouTube, your Gmail and Google Calendar, and the Google Assistant on your Android device. A HomePod will deepen your relationship with Siri and iTunes, and so forth.
And all the time, whichever A.I. assistant you choose will be getting to know you intimately—not just your voice and your way of speaking, but your habits and preferences. In a blog post this week, Google vice president of engineering, Scott Huffman, reported that queries of Google Assistant tend to be action-oriented, like “Turn on the lights and play some music” or “Create an appointment for noon on Saturday.” Google, whose business revolves around targeted advertising, already knows what we’re searching for on the web and what we’re doing on our Android phones. It would love to know what we’re up to in our kitchens and living rooms too.
So an Echo-filled world would expand Amazon’s retail empire; a Home-filled world would broaden Google’s surveillance network and feed its A.I.; a world of HomePods would keep people ensconced in Apple’s ecosystem (especially if they’re well-off). And one shudders to think what a world of Facebook Portals might do. (Rumor has it the company delayed the device’s launch due to the Cambridge Analytica scandal.) The only darker scenario might be one in which the censorship-friendly Chinese tech companies ultimately prevail.
That Amazon no longer looks poised to monopolize smart speakers might reassure critics wary of its online retail dominance. But the prospect of Google’s dominance should give privacy advocates pause. What we have for now, thankfully, is a hotly competitive industry—the kind that is unlikely to give rise to any proprietary eponyms at all.
There’s no denying that Google Home and Amazon Echo (or the less-expensive Echo Dot, if you’re not using it for music) have changed the way we interact with our homes. Turning on the lights has never been easier, nor has it been simpler to field the latest traffic report or order delivery for dinner. The future is here, and we’re reveling in it!
But the proliferation of these devices around our homes leaves room for error. Google’s and Amazon’s connected speakers must always listen for us to utter their magic “wake” words—OK Google or Alexa respectively—in order to perform their tasks. If you don’t configure them properly, you might see random purchases show up at your door.
It happened in San Diego when a little girl asked Alexa to deliver her a “dollhouse and some cookies.” She knew the right words to say, and in a few days’ time, she had her goodies. (If you want to have some fun, watch this news clip near your Alexa-powered device and watch it light up.)
If you’re worried about family members, roommates, or pranksters making unwanted purchases on your account, you can either disable this feature altogether, or set up your Google Home or Amazon Echo so that it buys things only after you’ve specifically authorized the purchase. Here’s how.
Google Home isn’t tied to one of the world’s largest online retailers, so you might think there’s less of a risk of unintended purchases. But it does provide voice-payment capabilities for Google Express, which allows you to purchase products from participating retailers such as Costco, Target, and Toys ‘R Us.
The payments setting is disabled by default in the Google Home app. If you’d enabled it previously and have since changed your mind, it’s easy to turn off. Just log into the Home app on your Android or iOS device, tap the hamburger menu, and choose “More settings.” Tap “Payments” on the next screen. Delete everything you see there. It’s the easiest way to ensure no one in your household can run rampant with your payment information on file. Alternatively, you can simply tick the “Pay through your Assistant” option so that it’s off and unselected.
How to enable purchases on Google Home
If you want to start—or restart—making payments with voice commands, open the Google Home app, tap the menu button, and then tap on Payments. Here you can set up a delivery address and a primary payment method. Google will automatically pull in any payment data previously associated with your account (and prompt you to update any expired or out-of-date cards). The app will ll also ask if you want to grant access to any Google Home devices you have set up in your home.
Once you’ve set that up, you can order things through Google Home by saying phrases such as “OK Google, order paper towels.” Google Home will list options for relevant items and their accompanying prices. Then, you can accept the order to place it officially.
You can even ask, “OK Google, how do I shop?” for a helpful walkthrough of the process. For other services, such as Domino’s pizza delivery, the payment information is set up separately through that company’s Easy Order, which fires up the oven right after you place your order. (This works with the Echo as well.)
Disabling purchasing on the Amazon Echo, Dot, Tap, and Show
Amazon’s smart speakers are quickly becoming smart-home workhorses, but they could also be considered Trojan horses aimed at capturing more and more of your shopping dollars.Here’s how to disable—and then re-enable—purchasing power with an Amazon Echo, Dot, Tap, or Show.
If you’ve previously enabled payments any of your Amazon Echos and want to now disable it, just launch the Alexa app on your smartphone or tablet. If you have more than one device in the Echo family, you’ll need scroll past all of them—and past the blue “Set up a new device” button—until you reach the “Voice Purchasing” button. Click on the radio button to disable this feature. You’re done.
How to enable purchases via the Amazon Echo
Under Settings, scroll down to “Voice Purchasing.” Tap to enable “Purchase by voice.” It’s a good idea to set up a confirmation code at this point. It willl ensure no one can order things without your permission unless they know the code. Below that, you can select to manage your 1-Click payment settings, which selects which of your bank cards to use when the purchasing happens.
When you’re ready to buy something, you can ask Alexa to order anything from Amazon—physical as well as digital goods. If you’re listening to a song, for example, you can ask Amazon to purchase the MP3 with your payment information on file. Or if you’re in need of toilet paper, you can ask Alexa to send it over with two-day shipping.
If you’re stuck, or maybe a little shy, ask Alexa how to shop and it’ll walk you through what it can do.
When in doubt, mute it
If all else fails and your neighboring dwellers are still managing to make errant purchases, you can either unplug the device or mute it. The latter is particularly effective if you have children coming over who find it amusing to summon virtual assistants.
Then again, who doesn’t? It’s why we use our voices to buy things, after all, simply because we can.
Florence reports on all the latest Android and smart home gear for PCWorld, Greenbot and TechHive. Follow her on Twitter at @ohthatflo.