A US senator sent a letter of inquiry to Amazon, seeking answers as to how Amazon retains voice data and transcripts generated through the tech giant’s popular smart home assistant, Alexa.
Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware sent the letter right after a report saying that Amazon is keeping transcripts of interactions with Alexa. In his letter, the senator demanded that Amazon disclose how it kept voice recordings and transcripts. He also asked Amazon what the data gets used for.
On June 28, Amazon Vice President of Public Policy, Brian Huseman, said that Amazon keeps transcripts and voice recordings indefinitely. Amazon will only remove the transcripts once users delete the transcripts themselves. Additionally, Huseman noted that Amazon had an “ongoing effort to ensure those transcripts do not remain in any of Alexa’s storage systems.”
The letter also revealed that there are still transcripts of conversations from Alexa that don’t get deleted even if users remove the audio.
Amazon’s letter noted that for Alexa requests that involve a transaction, Amazon and its developers keep a record of the transaction. However, this transaction information is considered to be personal information and that's information that Amazon says you can't delete. Amazon has no right to store this data if users request it to be deleted. Huseman added that other requests such as setting reminders and alarms are also saved indefinitely. According to Amazon, this feature was requested by Alexa users.
“Customers would not want or expect deletion of the voice recording to delete the underlying data or prevent Alexa from performing the requested task,” Huseman said in the letter.
Despite being requested by users, the feature has raised concerns among privacy advocacy groups. The groups discovered that Alexa’s “Remember” feature didn’t delete information stored unless users call Amazon’s customer service and ask them to delete the entire user profile.
Reacting to the letter, Sen. Coons said that Amazon’s response leaves open the possibility that transcripts of user voice interactions with Alexa are also not deleted from all Amazon’s servers. What’s worse is the fact that these data can be shared with third parties. It is also unclear how this data is shared with third parties and how the data is used and controlled.
Senator Coon's reaction in full:
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I appreciate that Amazon responded promptly to my concerns, and I’m encouraged that their answers demonstrate an understanding of the importance of and a commitment to protecting users’ personal information.
However, Amazon’s response leaves open the possibility that transcripts of user voice interactions with Alexa are not deleted from all of Amazon’s servers, even after a user has deleted a recording of his or her voice.
What’s more, the extent to which this data is shared with third parties, and how those third parties use and control that information, is still unclear.
The American people deserve to understand how their personal data is being used by tech companies, and I will continue to work with both consumers and companies to identify how to best protect Americans’ personal information.