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Big Sister is watching you

Gene Weingarten on

WASHINGTON -- Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post. I have put that line at the top of the column preemptively because if I didn't, an editor would jam it in randomly between two thoughts, because those are apparently The Rules.

So, a few months ago, I bought an Amazon Echo, that little black device that permits you to have conversations with the world, in the form of Alexa, the sultry-voiced robot who answers your questions. Alexa snaps to attention anytime you say her name. A fine column by Washington Post tech writer Geoffrey A. Fowler recently pointed out that this means Alexa is always listening to you, sorta, and further that Amazon keeps a record -- apparently forever -- of what you have said to her to trigger her responses. You can find recordings of them in your Amazon account online! With helpful transcriptions!

Allegedly, you'll only get stuff that you asked Alexa -- but the system is not perfect. I discovered that when I listened to my archive.

Many people have reported inadvertent triggers (If you utter, say, "Lexus," you might well summon Alexa.) That means random bits of eavesdropped dialogue sometimes get archived.

My case is particularly bad: Because I am a contrarian, in setting Alexa up, I chose one of three trigger options other than "Alexa."

Channeling the great Lieutenant Uhura, I chose "computer." This proved to be a bit problematic inasmuch as a person often uses that word in conversation without meaning to summon Ms. Echo.

 

(To foil this inadvertence, in Alexa's presence my girlfriend and I have begun referring to "computer" as "the c-word," which sounds a little disturbing to others.)

So, how flawed is this system? My first clue was several messages I retrieved that sounded like "wurff wuff." They turned out to be from Murphy, my dog. Alexa appears to snap to attention at some of Murphy's more melodic, polysyllabic barks, which Alexa apparently hears as "computer." Once, she heard "beautiful" as "computer" and recorded something a bit personal.

I wondered if Alexa was of such advanced artificial intelligence that she can use discretion in deciding what might be too sensitive to archive, so I tried deliberately making a few problematic comments.

All of these, alas, are now forever in my Amazon file:

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