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Amazon pushes Alexa privacy with new delete options

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‘Alexa, delete what I just said’

After a string of industry-wide privacy scares, Amazon is rolling out a new set of tools designed to give users more control over the stored voice recordings from their Alexa device. Announced at Amazon’s fall 2019 hardware event, the new skills are part of a host of hardware and software upgrades for the company’s personal voice assistant.

Onstage at the event, Amazon hardware and services chief Dave Limp announced a new push towards privacy, which began with a set of skills to let users monitor or delete recordings directly through the voice assistant. Beginning a few months ago, Alexa users have been able to delete specific recordings through commands like “Alexa, delete what I just said,” or “Alexa, delete everything I said today.” They can also check whether a given exchange was recorded by asking, “Alexa, tell me what you heard.”

The strongest new protection is a rolling deletion system in Amazon’s privacy hub, which will delete any and all voice recordings older than a certain cutoff — either three months or 18 months. The feature will not be activated automatically, and will still likely be subject to legal limitations. Nonetheless, it’s an important option for privacy conscious consumers, which had not been previously available.

“We’re investing in privacy across the board,” said Limp. “Privacy cannot be an afterthought when it comes to the devices and services we offer our customers. It has to be foundational and built in from the beginning for every piece of hardware, software, and service that we create.”

The privacy push also includes new privacy zones for the Ring and other camera products. Amazon has also added a shutter feature to manually disconnect the camera on the Echo Show 5.

Amazon’s new focus on privacy in Alexa comes after a string of alarming reports on how tech companies handle the voice recordings made by their devices. Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon have all drawn fire for letting contractors listen to stored voice recordings, which many saw as a privacy violation. In the wake of the scandal, Apple changed its policy to no longer retain audio recordings by default.

In a letter to Congress over the summer, Amazon admitted that it retains user data from Alexa requests even after audio files have been deleted, a revelation which came as a surprise to some users.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece stated that Amazon retains transcripts of audio requests after the audio is deleted. In fact, transcripts are deleted with the audio. The Verge regrets the error.