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New Amazon patent could mean Alexa really is always listening

Amazon Echo
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Worried that not enough of your home life is being recorded? Amazon has filed a patent for something called "pre-wakeword speech processing", which could lay the groundwork for an always-on Alexa device that never stops recording.

The patent (opens in new tab) (via Gizmodo (opens in new tab)) was filed on January 24, and specifies "a system for capturing and processing portions of a spoken utterance command that may occur before a wakeword" – which would enable the Alexa voice assistant to act on commands you uttered before calling out Alexa's name.

One of the few things that's kept user paranoia in check is the existence of the 'wake word'. You currently need to say the name 'Alexa' or 'Echo' in order for your Alexa-enabled speaker to start paying attention to your commands, meaning that you shouldn't have anything recorded unless you specifically ask for it.

The change would mean you could reverse this order, dropping Alexa's name casually at the end – or even in the middle – of a verbal request. 

Saying "Turn down the lights, Alexa" rather than "Alexa, turn down the lights" may not seem like a drastic change in the way you interact with your Amazon Echo. But it could signal a move further into ongoing surveillance by smart speakers that many may not want from their smart speakers.

User privacy is an increasingly hot topic, with reports of Amazon employees listening to audio recordings to improve Alexa's comprehension. This patent, however, also points towards a future where you can interact with Alexa in a more casual, natural way. Whether you think that's a good thing largely depends on whether you want a voice assistant you're in control of, or one that feels like a friend.

Security researcher David Emm (Kaspersky Lab) commented that "Amazon may argue that analysing stored data will make their devices smarter for Alexa owners – but in today’s digital era, such information could be used nefariously, even by trusted parties.

"We are concerned that this latest development shows the company moving in the wrong direction – away from data visibility, privacy, and consent.”

Henry St Leger
Henry St Leger

Henry is a freelance technology journalist. Before going freelance, he spent more than three years at TechRadar reporting on TVs, projectors and smart speakers as the website's Home Cinema Editor – and has been interviewed live on both BBC World News and Channel News Asia, discussing the future of transport and 4K resolution televisions respectively. As a graduate of English Literature and persistent theatre enthusiast, he'll usually be found forcing Shakespeare puns into his technology articles, which he thinks is what the Bard would have wanted. Bylines also include Edge, T3, and Little White Lies.